For centuries people have gone walking in order to enhance their ability to think and communicate. William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Henry Thoreau, George Orwell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Van Beethoven and Soren Kierkegaard to name a few. Aristotle didn't spend hours sitting on his duff staring at his iMac. He taught classes while he and his students took a stroll. Being Aristotle he probably knew that walking helps most of us process data, solve problems, and be creative with solutions and strategies (BBC Magazine, The Guardian). If walking and talking are so productive why are we not still practicing this?
Canadians, like many developed nations, are currently up against a tidal wave of obesity and chronic disease. Current statistics estimate that 60% of Canadian adults are obese. Given that many adults have jobs where they sit at desks for hours on end this isn't terribly surprising. We sit all day at work, often sit in a car or public transit to get to and from employment, and then are likely to sit at home in the evenings (watching TV and snacking perhaps?). It all adds up to a lot of seat time. In fact we spend more time sitting (average 9.3 hours) than we do sleeping (average 7.7 hours) each day. In terms of our health "sitting has become the smoking of our generation" says Business Innovator Nilofer Merchant (Wired).
Research shows that with very little daily movement we can change our health status and outcomes quite drastically. The Guardian recently reported on research in the British Health Journal that showed with about 20 minutes of walking each day there could be a very different disease pattern in the UK:
...if everyone did the recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise every week, 37,000 lives would be saved each year, 6,700 cases of breast cancer would be prevented, and we would stop 4,700 people getting colorectal cancer. Just as importantly, we would see a drop of nearly 300,000 in the number of people developing type 2 diabetes (BHJ reported in Guardian).Enter "walk advocacy". There is growing social movement that lobbies to promote walkable communities. They work with governments, developers, and community groups to improve walking conditions and opportunities in communities. These groups, largely volunteer, partner with planners, researchers, and public health representatives to affect issues that impact "walkability" (Feet First). Now that's quite a mouthful. What does it all mean? Simply put these folks work with community leaders to make it easy for people to walk. Their vision is that people will "walk every day for their health, transportation, environment, community and pleasure" (Feet First).
And so we see the introduction, or reintroduction, of "walking meetings". Feet First in Washington State argue that the idea of meeting around tables sitting in chairs is actually a fairly recent convention. Walking, thinking and talking is our real history that needs to be rediscovered and brought into the work environment (Feet First).
The concept is that instead of sitting around a board (bored?) table in a stuffy room people are scheduling meetings while walking. The walks can be any time of day along any route of the attendees choosing. Both small and large companies are trying this with some excellent results. The benefits are numerous.
Individuals get exercise which is good for the heart, lungs, brain, joints, gastrointestinal system, and mental health. Additionally if people are walking and talking they are less likely to tuck into sweet treats and gallons of bad coffee typically laid out at traditional meetings.
But in addition to benefiting individuals walking meetings also benefit the organizations they work for because as people walk they are energized and become more creative, innovative, and even more positive (Feet First). A Standford University study showed that walking increased creative output by an average of 60% (Globe and Mail). And team work is also enhanced. As a physical set up walking beside your meeting partner is more collegial and enhances a feeling of camaraderie versus the traditional set up of sitting across the table in a physically confrontational way (Feet First).
Advocates suggest that you can in fact have walking meetings with many different size groups. Up to five people can walk side-by-side as a group. 6 to 15 can walk in multiple groups stopping periodically for conversations with the whole group. 16 people or more can break into smaller groups with facilitators who move between groups to help with communication. Groups of any size can stop at intervals for whole group communication.
Some people are using walking meetings with work colleagues, others use them for family meetings, and community leaders are using them for contact with community members. In the USA there are politicians who are having walking town meetings to enhance dialogue between constituents and elected representatives. How about that for a concept? A weekly walk with your MPP or local counsellor?
At Toronto East General Hospital RN Lisa Sparrow and Dr. Rebecca Fine have developed a Walking Diabetes Clinic. Groups of six hit the trail with a health care provider and take turns walking with the physician or nurse to speak to them individually. The program demonstrates to patients that walking 30 minutes a day is easy. Participants have seen significant reductions in the blood sugar readings proving that moderate amounts of walking has a huge impact on their health status (Healthscape).
We were sitting for long periods of time and telling patients what a great thing it would be to walk more. I remember thinking, why can't we do the same thing while we're all walking together - why can't patients and clinicians conduct an appointment on the move, not only promoting physical activity, but putting it in practice? (Dr. Rebecca Fine, Endocrinologist, TEGH in Healthscape)There is clearly some planning required in order to take your meetings to the streets. Choosing safe and quiet routes, planning for weather variations, and picking walks that suit the fitness level of meeting attendees are all important. There should be group rules, as with any meeting, about cell phones, distractions, and staying on meeting topic. Identifying meeting leaders and facilitators is helpful and if a record of the meeting is required designating someone to either record the meeting or makes notes afterwards is useful (Feet First).
Nilofer Merchant recently gave a TED talk on walking meetings. She says that with very little preparation people can drastically improve the productivity of their meetings if walking. Preparatory material can be sent out in advance and is more likely to be read before a walking meeting which means people come prepared. Agendas can be succinct and portable. If absolutely necessary meetings can be recorded on portable devices but people in walking meetings usually remember what has been said and the salient points of a meeting (Nilofer Merchant). When you can't sit and write (or gaze at your smartphone), every word spoken comes into greater focus .
Ultimately, it's the absence of a device that lets me be present and listen with full attention. I believe this attention is the currency of our current work/life era; what efficiency was to the industrial era, relationships are to the social era. Walking without technology keeps our attention - and relationship -bank in balance. (Nilofer Merchant in Wired).
So consider a walking appointment for your next meeting whether it be with family or work colleagues. You might be surprised at how efficient it is and how great you feel.
For the Feet First Technical Guide on setting up walking meetings please click here. For the Nilofer Merchant TED talk on Walking Meetings please click here.
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References & Links:
Feet First Website
Nilofer Merchant TED talk: Got a Meeting? Take a Walk.
Walking Meetings: Taking it to The Streets (The Guardian)
The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking (BBC Magazine)
Helping Patients to Manage Their Diabetes One Step at a Time (Healthscape)
Walk the Talk: Why you have to try this new (and healthy) business meeting style (Globe & Mail)
Everybody Walk: The Campaign to get America Walking
Kill Your Meeting Room: The Future's in Walking (Wired Magazine)