Walking isn’t just exercise or a practical way to get from point A to point B, although it is both those things. Walking is one of the features that makes humans human. It’s such an integral part of the human condition that most of us take for granted the advantages of walking upright on two feet with hands free—unless the ability to walk is taken from us, of course.
I’ve put a good deal of energy into extolling the health benefits of walking and why everyone who’s able should walk more. Hint: it’s not just to burn calories or save the environment by leaving your car at home. I walk every day because it’s when I get some of my best thinking done. Sometimes my walks are purposeful, sometimes they are meditative, sometimes they are much-needed breaks from a stressful day. My best, most restorative walks involve a natural setting like a beach or hiking trail, though urban walking is still highly valuable.
In short, my daily walks are critical to health, energy, mental clarity, and ultimately, I believe, my vitality. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Many of the most accomplished and creative people throughout history have also found walking to be an integral part of their daily routines and key to their success as artists, creators, writers, musicians, thinkers, and human beings.
Let’s look at how some of these folks used walking to improve their work:
Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, empiricist, and pupil to Plato, conducted his lectures while walking the grounds of his school in Athens. His followers (who quite literally followed him as he walked) were even known as the peripatetics—Greek for meandering or walking about. Ah, to witness one of history’s greatest minds utilizing the cognitive benefits of moving while thinking1 must have been incredible.
Words of wisdom from the man himself:
The energy or active exercise of the mind constitutes life.
The poet with the most fitting surname ever, William Wordsworth reportedly walked nearly 175,000 miles throughout his life while maintaining a prolific writing career. He managed these two seemingly opposing habits because for Wordsworth, walking was writing in a way. As he saw it, the act of walking was “indivisible” from the act of writing poetry. Both were rhythmic, both employed meter. He needed to walk in order to write.
Walking was also in his blood. William’s sister Dorothy was an extremely accomplished walker and writer in her own right. How do you become an accomplished walker, you ask? She climbed England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, in 1818, a time when women were largely absent from the mountaineering scene. She also accompanied brother William on many of his daily walks and is credited with being a major influence in his thinking and writing.
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
-“The Tables Turned”
Charles Dickens, author, social commentator, walker? Yes. After writing from 9 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, he would go for a long walk. A 20- or 30-miler was routine for him. When Dickens couldn’t sleep at night—which was often—he’d crawl London’s streets until dawn. Dickens walked so much that his friends worried, figuring he had a mania for walking that bordered on pathology. But clearly, the walking worked. Dickens was prolific, writing more than a dozen major and well-regarded novels, several short story collections, a few plays, and even some non-fiction books.
According to the man himself, if he couldn’t walk “far and fast,” he would “explode and perish.” I bet a treadmill desk would have blown his mind. Actually, it might not have worked for him. The walking was so important for Dickens because it meant he wasn’t writing, the act of which he found quite miserable and difficult. Walking was relief.
The sum of the whole is this: walk and be happy; walk and be healthy. The best way to lengthen out our days is to walk steadily and with a purpose.
Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau was a famous and self-identified “saunterer.” In the aptly titled essay “Walking,” he comments on the etymology of the word saunter, noting that it comes from “the idle people who roved about the country… under the pretense of going à la Sainte Terre,” or the Holy Land.2
For Thoreau, walking through nature was a kind of pilgrimage without a destination. His Holy Land was all around him. And as long as he walked, he kept discovering new temples, new places to worship.
I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.
Taleb’s a contemporary writer, unlike most of these other famous walkers. You can find him trading jabs with critics on Twitter, probably in the last hour. He’s been writing about anti-fragility for many years, about how successful systems, economies, and businesses must experience and be able to adequately respond to punctuated, not chronic, stresses and randomness to stay successful and robust.
But it wasn’t until he started walking that he realized the same concepts applied to humans. We also need to face intermittent stressors to remain healthy, robust, and anti-fragile, and we require randomness and variation. So, for Taleb, that means some intense strength training every so often, a fair amount of relaxation, and lots and lots of aimless meandering as a foundation.
Straight from the horse’s mouth, er, Taleb’s Twitter:3
Walking is misunderstood, underrated. Nothing, nothing substitutes for it. And the minimum should be > 6-7 miles on v. hilly terrain.
Walking deprivation is similar to sleep deprivation.
Patrick Leigh Fermor
I first read about Fermor almost a decade ago in a New Yorker piece describing him as a cross between Indiana Jones, Graham Greene, and James Bond. A British Special Operations officer, he fought in the Cretan resistance during World War II, going undercover as a mountain shepherd and leading the successful capture of German commander General Heinrich Kreipe.
But Fermor was also a serious walker. At the age of 18, after dropping (or failing) out of school and drifting somewhat aimlessly around London, he walked from western Holland clear to Istanbul over the course of a year and change. This walk transformed him from wayward youth to man, soldier, and eventual travel writer. Driving or taking the train wouldn’t have produced the same quality (man or writer), for walking allowed the total saturation of the senses and accumulation of detailed memories that informed his transformation and colored his writing.
All horsepower corrupts.
–A Time of Gifts
A prolific poet and essayist who passed away in 2019, Mary Oliver garnered a huge fan base by observing the world from the perspective of someone truly immersed in nature. Many of her beloved poems read like a journal entry documenting the mundanity of an everyday walk but infused with a deep appreciation and unique perspective that takes the mundane and makes it art.
She began walking as a way to escape, and to process, a traumatic childhood. As an adult, to hear her speak of it, walking became a so intricately a part of her everyday existence that to try to separate the walker from the writer would be impossible. Oliver spent hours every day walking with her notebook, observing the flora and fauna in her environment, foraging for food, and generally communing with the natural world.
For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.
Kierkegaard had two main pursuits: walking and writing. He wrote through the morning until noon, when he’d walk the streets of Copenhagen, mentally composing paragraphs and working through new ideas. After the walk, he was back to writing (at a standing desk, no less).
This just might be the most useful, actionable piece of advice he ever wrote, from a letter to his niece:
Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Famous composer Ludwig Van Beethoven typically worked from sun-up through mid afternoon, taking several breaks to work while walking. These walks happened regardless of the weather, for they were important for his creativity. He would carry a pen and sheets of music paper in case inspiration struck—which it often did.
You ask me where I get my ideas. That I cannot tell you with certainty. They come unsummoned, directly, indirectly – I could seize them with my hands – out in the open air, in the woods, while walking, in the silence of the nights, at dawn, excited by moods which are translated by the poet into words, by me into tones that sound and roar and storm about me till I have set them down in notes.
As you can see, walking isn’t just putting one foot in front of the other. For some of the greatest minds in history (and there are many more who could have been included here), walking was a way to clear the brain, prevent mental breakdown, extend life, solve or evade problems, fully experience the world, beat insomnia, and find purpose. If it worked for these geniuses—if it by many accounts made them—it’s probably worth a shot. Don’t you think?
Yeah, things are different. We can’t all stroll through a Viennese forest or traipse along the cobblestone streets of 19th century London. The reality is that most of us would have to completely overhaul our entire lives to walk for a couple hours a day, let alone four, five, six. You might have to settle for a suburban sidewalk after work, a trail along a city creek, a crowded hike on the weekend, or even a quick jaunt out of the office to the Starbucks across the street. And that’s fine. What matters is the walking.
I hope this resonates with you. All I know is I definitely feel the need to go for a walk.
Thanks for reading, everyone! How does walking figure into your life, your work, your productivity?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.