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Walking As Work: Why Movement Is the Killer App

Prescription for walking

Psst! Want to learn more about walking as work? Register here for our free GuideStar webinar on Thursday, February 12 at 2pm ET with Beth Kanter and Andrea Kihlstedt, "Nonprofit Kick Start 2015: Creating Healthy and Productive Meetings." Can't make that time? Don't worry, all registrants will receive full slides and recordings a week after the event. Thank you!

Last year, when I got my annual physical, my cholesterol numbers were not good. For this month's Connect theme, a number of speakers are previewing the great breakout sessions they are preparing for the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Austin, TX March 4-6. Following is a preview of one of over 100 breakout sessions.

My doctor's advice was to start eating a heart-healthy diet and get more exercise. A lot of my work consists of sitting — working on a computer, talking on the phone, or attending meetings or conferences. As Nilofer Merchant points out in this TED talk, people are sitting 9.3 hours a day, which is more than we're sleeping, at 7.7 hours. All that sitting is not good for your health.

I made a commitment to change. I started using a Fitbit and apps like to monitor and motivate me. I also changed my eating habits. I'm happy to report that my numbers are in the normal range. I'm also noticing that many of my NPTech colleagues are trying to become healthy, and that is why I decided to put a session together at the 15NTC on “Walking as Work” along with Ritu Sharma to show some ways that we can all integrate walking into work.


I try to walk between 10-20k steps a day, using my fitbit to measure it. When I mentioned this to a colleague, he asked me, "How the heck do you make the time to do this? What have you cut from your schedule?" I have cut out non-productive work time where I sit at my desk and can't concentrate! I have incorporated mini-breaks to walk in the middle of the day to help me think when I I am writing or thinking through a problem for a client. Also, if I'm on calls, I do them while walking around. I have gotten good at taking notes while I walk. I've also replaced networking requests for "coffee" for "walking meetings." It isn't about making the time or thinking about physical activity or movement as a separate exercise time, but something that is integrated into your life — including work time. I even presented a walking keynote on walking!

The problem is that walking is perceived as a "break activity," not part of work as explained in this Harvard Business Review blog post, "Take a Walk, Sure, but Don't Call It A Break." It describes the benefits of walking as part of work — creativity, leadership development, and relationship building. "So, when you really need to get something done, get away from your computer and your conference room, and go for a long walk. It’s not a luxury. It’s work."

Senior Leaders Get on Their Walking Shoes

The benefits of walking to "clear your brain" or build relationships is not a new leadership technique. As Louis Sullivan, HHS Secretary in 1989-93 and famous for walking meetings, notes, "For me, walking has proved to be a great way to promote a healthy lifestyle, while facilitating my communications skills and leadership efforts." Steve Jobs was famous for it and, perhaps because of that, walking meetings are common in Silicon Valley, as this article points out. The walking at work trend is being more broadly adopted by senior managers, in part because leaders want to get some distance from their always on work styles, with all of the demands of smartphones and laptops. It’s also boosted by the increasing number of open-space offices, which give even top executives little privacy to speak candidly or have any alone time.

Walking is the Killer Work App for Creativity

Henry David Thoreau said famously, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” As a trainer, I have incorporated movement breaks and moving around into instruction because this helps wake up peoples' brains. But incorporating walking into your work has many advantages, too. Research shows that walking boosts creativity and cognitive function. It can also help to build relationships.

Some Tips for Walking Meetings

One resource that I came across is "Everybody Walk," a campaign aimed at getting Americans up and moving. While their messaging is focused solely on the fitness benefits — that walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week can improve your overall health and prevent disease — there are some useful resources on the site. I think there are additional benefits, especially for work. When you walk solo, you have the benefit of working through some problems or helping you generate a creative solution. But walking with colleagues can boost relationship-building and collaboration. That means rethinking meetings.

What are some practical ways to integrate walking into work?

1. Make a list of all the work meetings in your life

  • Organizational Meetings: A big part of work life, especially for those who are staff members of traditional nonprofits, are meetings. Think about all the meetings that are scheduled in a typical workweek. Many are face-to-face: these might include 1:1 meetings with colleagues or your boss; small team meetings, or large team meetings
  • Professional Networking Meetings: Meetings with people for coffee or lunch or visiting their office (or vice a versa) for professional relationship building
  • Conferences: Small or large sessions at conferences
  • Virtual Meetings: Conference calls, online chats, and webinars

All of these meetings can be reinvented as walking meetings. Those that require technology and an Internet connection can easily be transferred to a mobile phone while you walk.

2. Think about your goals

Walking has the added benefit of getting your creative juices going. So, if you are having a brainstorm meeting, you can make it even more productive by making it a walking meeting. Or maybe you want to change up the dynamics of a small group meeting by changing your normal routine.

The Feet First site suggests that these tasks are perfect for walking meetings:

  • Educate and inform: Educate about things in the environment while experiencing and demonstrating them. Different experts can speak at different locations
  • Problem solve: Problem solving can be enhanced by the physical activity of walking (“thinking on your feet”), as well as informal interactions among people
  • Enhance creativity: Creativity is enhanced when people are physically active, and stimulated by a variety of visual, auditory, and other senses
  • Socialize and build team spirit: Relationships are developed while walking, and team-building occurs while involved in informal activities. The spontaneous mixing that occurs on a walk can enhance interactions
  • Make decisions: Walking meetings help prepare for decision-making and can result in more options for consideration
  • Resolve conflict: Walks can help resolve conflicts for pairs and small groups. For larger groups, the walk improves team interactions and helps generate solutions

3. Let People Know in Advance

It is important to give enough warning for a walking meeting so people can dress accordingly — bring a coat or sweater or wear comfortable shoes. Walking meetings in high heels are not much fun.

4. Planning and Preparation

Like any other business meeting, there is agenda preparation, but there are also some other items you need to think about. You need to allow time for stretching and bio breaks. Also, allow time to capture notes after the meeting. I like to take along a pen and small pad to jot down notes, but I find that if I am doing a walking meeting, I'm retaining information better; some quiet time right after the meeting ends is enough to capture the notes.

5. The Actual Walk

Plan your route in advance, if possible, so you know how far you can walk in your allotted time and avoid noisy spots or too-narrow walkways. If you have more than one other person, you will have to do a little bit more planning. According to the Feet First Walking Guide:

  • One on One Meetings: Meeting as a pair tends to be easy. Walking breaks down the barrier of a desk and chair, and lets people communicate more equally
  • Small Group Meetings of 3-5: Meetings with three or more can be affected by the width of the sidewalk or path, variations in terrain, and possible physical barriers. This size group is flexible, as discussion can occur while walking, or if desired the group can stop along the walk
  • Groups of 5-16: Meetings with larger groups tend to result in more than one conversation while walking. If the whole group is to be involved, make time to stop and gather as a whole
  • Groups Larger than 16: These tend to require more planning, with a strong leader and potentially a few assistants if needed. There will be conversations while walking, then planned stops for presentations

Also be sure to establish the rules such as "stay with the group" or "no cell phones," before you head out. If you have a larger group, you might want to designate someone as the notetaker. And, if you have more than one person, you might have to break the group up by pace of their walking. Include stops in your meeting to summarize agenda points and shift into next topic.

You can find additional resources on walking meetings here.

The preceding is a cross-post by Beth Kanter, the author of Beth’s Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media, one of the longest running and most popular blogs for nonprofits. To read the original article on Beth’s blog, click here. Beth has over 30 years working in the nonprofit sector in technology, training, capacity building, evaluation, fundraising, and marketing. Beth is an internationally recognized trainer who has developed and implemented effective sector capacity building programs that help organizations integrate social media, network building, and relationship marketing best practices. Beth is an expert in facilitating online and offline peer learning, curriculum development based on traditional adult learning theory, and other instructional approaches. She has trained thousands of nonprofits around the world.

Topics: Trends