As an executive coach, the question I would like to explore today is: what are the benefits of coaching whilst walking?

100% of those who walked outdoors were more creative than those sitting indoors

“The more we exercise, the better our brain gets, the more focused we can be, and the smarter we are.”

Coaching whilst walking

Hands up those of you who like to go for a walk? In my mind’s eye, I can see lots of hands going up and my hand goes up immediately, too (especially when it’s a walk on a beach!)

Most of us enjoy a walk outside in nature. After all, nature is where we come from, and it’s where we are most at ease. It’s where we can feel more connected to ourselves and others, where we are able to slow down, ground ourselves and become more spacious inside.

I’m sure we are all aware of the health benefits of the exercise of a good walk, too. Walking is shown to:

  • reduce anxiety and stress whilst improving overall mood
  • kick-start endorphins (a feel-good hormone in our body)
  • increase heart rate and oxygen levels in our blood and brain
  • decrease blood pressure
  • help us to look up and out and not just down at our phone and the nearest crocodile

Do I need to go on?! I think we all get the point, there are tons of benefits of going out for a walk.

I’ve recently started offering ‘coaching whilst walking’ sessions in St James and Green Park in London and my coachees and I have loved the experience. One of my coachees said after the 1 hour coaching walk:

“The session was superb. I found walking to be the perfect tonic to my natural reluctance to let go: I’m not sure I would have been as open had we been stuck in an office surrounded by visual reminders of work. It was a revelation for me!”

So what is it that makes this form of executive coaching so beneficial?

Coaching while walking may be new to many leaders, but it has a long history. Aristotle regularly taught while walking. Jean Jacques Rousseau said, ‘I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs.’ Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols, ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.’ And in more recent times, Walter Isaacson wrote of Steve Jobs, ‘Taking a long walk was his preferred way to have a serious conversation.’ Other leaders in Silicon Valley and elsewhere do the same.

At Stanford University, a team of researches asked themselves: Is it really true that walking increases creative thought? A series of four experiments sought to answer this question. Researchers measured the creative ideation of people sitting and walking. The first three studies found 81%, 88%, and 100% of participants were more creative walking than sitting.

A fourth study tested the effect of walking outdoors and found 100% of those who walked outdoors were more creative than those sitting indoors. If you want to learn more about the Stanford study, there is a TED talk about it (see the video on the left)

So the results really are compelling:

• Walking enhanced creative ideation when compared to sitting
• Walking increased the talkativeness of participants, which was linked to their creativity
• Walking outside produced the most novel and highest quality insights
• The increased mental effect occurred not only during the walk itself, but also shortly after when participants sat down again to work.

If you need more evidence yet, here is Dr John Ratey, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who explains what’s happening when we walk. ‘Exercise is a prime mover of the brain, helping it to deal with emotional ups and downs as well as anxiety, tension, stress, and help the brain function better. The more we exercise, the better our brain gets, the more focused we can be, and the smarter we are.’

Since I’ve incorporated walking into my coaching practice, I’ve become convinced that it brings a number of specific benefits to the coaching relationship. Here are five important ones:

Coaching while walking:

1. Takes my client as well as me out of our ‘normal’ day-to-day environments. The walking puts physical and mental distance between us and all those things, people or minutiae that may be weighing us down or distracting us.

2. Creates more relaxed conversations. Walking noticeably relaxes both my client and me. Our brains make a switch into ‘alpha’ and allow for more relaxation, calmness and creativity. And more relaxed means greater listening and coaching presence for me.

3. Makes for a less formal environment than sitting face to face across a desk. You heard above from my coachee that walking did something that allowed them to ‘let go’. The pressure from the office is gone. The social pressure of eye contact is gone. The posture is side-by-side, a partnership, taking in the ecology around us.

4. Assists clients to talk more and have more insights. They ‘think on their feet’ and I have noticed that I ask fewer questions whilst walking. Funnily enough, when I go for a walk with my kids, they will chat away happily, but once we’re back at home they’re done with talking. Thank goodness, the Stanford studies confirm that my family is not alone in this tendency (!)

5. Makes silence easier for coach and client. Walking paces and slows down the conversation. Sitting across from one another we often feel the need to fill the silence. Yet, silence while walking is comfortable.

And here’s another great thing: coaching while walking can happen almost anywhere. Of course, the location of a beach is awesome. So are the numerous London parks and squares and the walkways along the river.

When is it your turn for coaching whilst walking?

Katrin Homer, June 2019