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Aristotle, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Soren Kierkegaard, Henry D. Thoreau and St. Augustine of Hippo … What do these men, who were among the most influential thinkers in Western history, have in common besides having revolutionary ideas that changed the world?
They all had the habit of walking daily. “I can only think when I walk; my mind only works with my legs,” said Rousseau.
What these geniuses intuitively realized is supported by neuroscience today. Researchers at Stanford University conducted a study comparing the creativity levels of people who walked at least 20 minutes a day with those who did not have this habit.
In 2014 they reported their findings: Walking increased by up to 60% the probability of the person having innovative ideas and being successful in creativity exercises. The same results were observed in individuals who practiced walking on treadmills indoors as those who walked outdoors.
The probable reason? Walking increases blood flow to the brain, increases activity in the hippocampus where memories are stored, improves cognitive development, and promotes the generation of new neurons, which may be associated with the emergence of new ideas.
The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote: “I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” (His letter on the benefits of walking is worth reading in its entirety.)
His idea has found validation in modern science. American psychologist Francine Shapiro observed that as we walk, the spontaneous eye movement of looking around at various things in our environment instead of at a specific fixed point relieves negative thoughts.
Starting from her personal experience, she studied the phenomenon more in depth and identified neurological causes. This discovery was the basis of her innovative EMDR Therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which she developed and used to treat war veterans with PTSD, among other patients.
When we walk forward, it’s as if we leave our fears and our chains behind. Walking alone allows us to see problems from a new perspective, with a clearer head, integrated into our surroundings.
We feel more physically integrated, our lower limbs moving with the rest of our body, which never happens when we sit. And all this is enhanced by the good that walking does for the heart, circulation, and even posture. If it’s in the middle of nature, with an inspiring view and breathing fresh air, it’s even better.
Thoreau, the American poet and naturalist thinker, walked more than four hours a day in the woods of Massachusetts. Rousseau, almost an athlete, walked more than 20 miles a day. Based on this habit, he wrote,
“I have never thought so much, lived so much, been so much myself, if I dare so express myself, as on the journeys I have made alone and on foot. There’s something about walking that cheers me up and revives my ideas. I can hardly think when I’m standing still; I have to get my body moving so that my spirit can be too.”
Speaking of the spirit and how walking can help us solve problems, many people also walk while they pray the Rosary, or even while they meditate. If what has been said by the illustrious minds cited above is true, then praying while walking should be a great combination. It could help us listen to God’s voice with less anxiety and with more openness to His inspirations, which often require thinking creatively, leaving behind our own prejudices and plans.
Indeed, St. Augustine, a great philosopher and theologian, is often quoted as having said, speaking of how he dealt with problems, “It is solved by walking.” And, perhaps it’s not by chance that Jesus spoke to his disciples as they were walking on their way to Emmaus and used that opportunity to explain the Scriptures to them.