What's In a Walk? How Taking Different Types of Walk Inspires Different Types of Thinking

What is in a walk? If not all walks are the same, does that mean we could choose what type of walk we take to engage different parts of ourselves to think differently?

What's In a Walk? How Taking Different Types of Walk Inspires Different Types of Thinking
Experimental photography image by author, taken on a photography walk.

A good, long walk. They are great aren't they? Something to blow out the cobwebs of the brain, stretch the legs and get some good old fresh air.

I do love a daily walk. I'm not consistent in doing them every single day, but never have I gone out for a walk and felt worse on my return. Ever.

That got me thinking, what's in a walk that makes them so wonderful and fulfilling? Because the more I thought about it, although all walks are essentially the same process of putting one foot in front of the other, not all walks are the same when it comes to how I use my brain. Sometimes I think about one thing, sometimes I think about many, sometimes I don't think about much at all. But every time, I feel better.

What is in one walk that makes it so different from another?

I realised there is a huge variety of different types of walk, all of which have a different initiating factor; the reason why we take the walk in the first place. They have different destinations and/or routes. This influences what we see and the experiences we have. We walk at different speeds, concurrently slowing up or speeding down both our minds and bodies. As such we have different types of spiritual connections to the world around us.

Today, in the first Brain STREAM newsletter for a little while, I wanted to share some of these different types with you, to start exploring what's in a walk and consider what each type might be good for, and not so good for.

The commuter or destination walk

If you walk to work either partially or entirely then you'll probably understand when I say you could walk all the way to work and wonder how exactly it was you got there. The commuter walk is the autopilot walk. It's the route you take every day that's hard-wired into your very soul. Most likely you could do it blind-folded and I think it often it seems, we do.

These are the walks we often don't notice the subtle changes of the every day. We are so encapsulated in our own little worlds, outside things don't often make it in. These are the times I might listen to an audio book or podcast, immersing myself into another world entirely. I know the route, I know how long it will take me, so I can zone out. For me, this route must be the same every day, if it gets changed, then something doesn’t sit right. I feel my anxiety slightly raised.

  • Great for: zoning out | listening to your favourite music, book or podcast | preparation for the work day | transitioning between work and home
  • Not so good for: awareness | developing a sense of being

The I'm late 'walk'

When I do the 'I'm late walk', it's not relaxing in the slightest. It's about getting from A to B in the shortest possible time. It's a 'hoping' walk; 'I hope the traffic lights work in my favour', 'I hope I make it on time', 'I hope the person I'm meeting isn't annoyed with me' and so on. It's an exercise in self deprecation; 'If only I…' 'I'm so…' or annoyance at someone else as being the reason for your lateness. I get out of breath, feeling less than fresh by the time I make it to my destination. Here there's no appreciation of your surroundings and very little thinking time. It's a walk of last resort and not conducive to relaxation and thought. The only thing it's good for is shaving a few minutes off how long it takes you.

  • Great for: exercise | efficiency
  • Not so great for: feeling better about yourself | positive thinking | being calm | transitions

This is probably the only walk that may not make me feel better at the end of it!

The break or fresh air walk

After a particularly intense meeting or work session, having that 5-10 minute block of fresh air and leg stretching does wonders for transitioning into the next task. This is often the time when I realise, 'I should have/have not said that'. These walks often function as the digest of what went before rather than the preparation of what is to come next; they are a brain summary of what has just gone rather than what is to come.

  • Great for: digesting information | task transitioning
  • Not so great for: deep thinking | exercise

The psyching up walk

Conversely to the one previous which is more of a post walk, this is the pre-walk. The preparation walk for what is about to come. It's the walk round the block to prepare for an interview or the slow meander around the building to prepare for a tough meeting. It's where I try to slow breathe, calming my mind for what is to come. The walking is just something to keep my legs and eyes occupied while I concentrate on the mind.

  • Great for: focus | self-regulation | preparation
  • Not so great for: wider thinking | exercise

The thinking walk

The thinking walk is where I head out to think and process. Generally it's a route I am familiar with, like a round the block or a loop. It's similar in design to the commuter walk but very different in its purpose. It's less time constrained in that you can take it slow or walk quickly, whatever you fancy. You might even do it twice. These are the walks we need to take to thrash something out; if a story isn't working or some data doesn't make and sense. Like the previous, it keeps our eyes and legs pre-occupied so we can focus on the mind and the spiritual.

We can regulate our breathing through the speed of our walk. Wanting to think faster? Walk faster. Wanting to slow it down, walk slower. Thinking walks, I find, are the best walks. Depending on what I am thinking about will depend on what I notice. If I'm thinking to be inspired, I'll take account of everything I see. If I'm thinking on a problem, I may notice less of what is going on.

  • Great for: wider thinking | curiosity | awareness | divergent thinking
  • Not so great for: can make depression and/or negative thinking worse if we ruminate too much | convergent thinking

The exercise walk

The purpose of exercise walks is to get the legs moving and to get us a little out of breath too. I do a lot of thinking on these walks but the thinking is abstract and not related to a particular thing. Thinking follows curiosity rather than having a specific goal. They can be particularly effective at coming up with random ideas but because we're on the move, it can be more tricky to record these ideas without feeling like our exercise is suffering.

  • Great for: exercise | positive thinking | building a healthy habit | social activities | developing curiosity
  • Not so great for: noticing details | remembering/recording what we think about

The walk to escape and forget

Those long walks I take at the weekend where I climb a hill or experience a new place are the walks where I like to try and forget the everyday. It's barrier between the everyday me and the me that wants to feel a sense of adventure and uncertainty. Often we experience new things in these walks and they push us a little out of our comfort zone.

  • Great for: exercise | new points of view and experiences | wider thinking | reaching outside our comfort zone
  • Not so great for: dealing with reality | time/planning required to get the benefits

The social walk

I don't go out for walks with friends enough. On the occasions I do, it's a destination walk, often to get to a coffee shop to sit down and chat instead. I think I feel I can focus on the other person more if I'm sitting. These I feel tend to work best if there is an identified route. This reduces that feeling of needing to think about the walk, as well as thinking about the other person and listening to what they have to say. Being outside can help people to relax more because there is less of a feeling of being overheard.

  • Great for: connection | developing listening skills | getting to the root of problems
  • Not so great for: noticing details | wider thinking | quick catch-ups

The photography or other 'arty' walk

A walk is a very different beast if I take my camera with me. These are slow walks usually with no destination in mind. Here my mind is focused entirely on the camera - what will make a good picture, what details do I notice, what is the light doing, what goes well together, what shapes do I see? This is a detail orientated walk - what do I see as opposed what do I think. I'm thinking through my camera. This type of walk can do wonders for escaping from reality.

  • Great for: noticing details | escaping | connection both with others but also time and place
  • Not so great for: exercise | problem solving | dealing with reality

The alternative meeting walk

The walking meeting is something I don't do enough of. In today's world, it feels necessary to either be sat in an office or in front of a computer screen. Walking meetings are also difficult to do in large groups, but between one or two people, walking meetings can be a great idea. A lot of the challenge for me, if I'm working from home in particular, is having a reliable internet connection. These walks are focused entirely on someone else. The environment is pretty irrelevant, as long as it is quiet. For me I'm conscious of disturbing someone else's peace.

  • Great for: exercise | time efficiency | one-to-ones
  • Not so great for: focus | wider thinking | large groups | sensitive conversations

The sightseeing or tourist walk

When I'm in a new place and wanting to see the tourist attractions, this is a sight-seeing walk. It's a mixture of all the other walks combined. There's usually very little thinking in these walks, more absorbing of cultures and experiences. Often I notice the things that are different, rather than the things that are the same; the colours, sights, smells, temperature, people, buildings and so on. It can take a while for me to feel connected within a new environment so this is about diverging experiences and gathering new data about the world. My experiences go into my brain as unfiltered information, with little thinking and processing involved. It's about what it, rather than what could be.

  • Great for: noticing details | experiences | dealing with wider reality | escaping | new ideas | alternative realities | communication
  • Not so great for: dealing with your own reality | processing

The dog walk

Similar to the commuter walk, the dog walk has to be done. Except that we are more free to change this one up if we want. If it's raining, it'll be a quick one. If it's a beautiful sunny day, we might spend a little longer. Often we'll bump into other people out on their walks - we usually know people by their dog rather than who they are as a person. We orientate our walk around these experiences, feeling more connected through our pet to our community. In this walk we feel connected to the animal we have on our heels and sometimes we notice the things they notice more.

  • Great for: exercise | habits | community |connection
  • Not so great for: escaping the every day | building new experiences

The mourning walk

I'm not sure what made me enter this one, but I considered the mourning walk as a very different type from the thinking walk. Whilst this one may make you think immediately of death - a funeral procession for example - it's also about mourning of something negative that occurred during your day. This is a processing walk and about coming to an understanding of what has happened, rather than a dwelling on something negative only, which we tend to be at risk of on thinking walks.

The negative thing could be a fight, or something you or someone else did or said. For me it's where I thrash out those feelings and recompose myself for the return. I try to understand both sides of the story; the good bits and the bad bits and come to a more objective view about what happened. These walks are necessary for me to process life.

  • Great for: respect | appreciation | spirituality | accepting and understanding feelings | processing an event | dealing with reality
  • Not so great for: wider thinking | social connection

The 'can't sleep' midnight walk

Luckily these are very infrequent for me, but sometimes if I have trouble sleeping, I'll have a midnight walk. It's the healthier form of the midnight snack. This is where I experience a part of the day I very rarely see. They can be incredibly fascinating as a window to an alternative world.

But we do have to be careful about the midnight walk so it doesn't become a habit that disrupts our daily experiences. The midnight walk, for me, is usually a sign there is something in the day that does not sit right:

"The things we refuse to face in life feed the enormous appetite of this dangerous truth-telling inner faculty of dreams. The things we refuse to face in life become monsters in our sleep." - Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free; pg42.

I find them effective at returning to sleep once I get back, but often feel them in the morning as lost hours of peaceful slumber. These walks have the purpose of sleep so aren't vigorous. They feel slow and considered, but with a hint of frustration.

  • Great for: helping sleep to arrive | new experiences | discovery | processing
  • Not so great for: wider habits | social connection

So the next time you take a walk, think a little on its purpose. Perhaps there is an opportunity to make sure we get the most from the experience, and maybe even the chance to optimise a little so you get what you really need from the walk.

Have you ever tried pretending to be a tourist on your daily commute? What do you notice?

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Until next week,