Writing is not the best occupation for your health. For most of us, writing involves a lot of sitting, which is why a good walk may be the best writing exercise there is.
I was struggling writing an article for a blog (not this one, but one for Disc Makers, BookBaby’s sister company) about Brian Wilson’s album Smile, when I decided to take my advice from this article and go for a walk. I was literally around the corner from my house when I became inspired, and all was right with the world. During that same walk, I also figured out how to best approach this article, and even had ideas for two future articles.
Not bad for a 30-minute stroll.
Writing is not the best occupation for your health. For most of us, writing involves a lot of sitting, and there is a growing amount of research on how sitting for long periods is unhealthy. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Too much sitting … seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.” “Too much” sitting, according to the Mayo, is sitting for four or more hours a day. That’s basically every day for me.
Not only is sitting for long periods bad for your health, it’s also bad for your writing. Your brain works best when it’s stimulated. Sitting for long periods of time can make your brain sluggish.
So, in a way, writing is actually kind of bad for your writing. How’s that for a catch-22?
Luckily there is a quick fix to both problems: Walking.
Hemingway, Dickens, Thoreau, Kierkegaard, and J. K. Rowling have all extolled the virtues of walking. Orson Scott Card said, “It’s worth the time to take an hour’s walk before writing. You may write a bit less for the time spent, but you may find that you write better.”
So why walking as opposed to, say, cross-fit? Frankly, any (safe) exercise is better than no exercise. So if you’re into a specific type of exercise, by all means, do it. It will make you healthy, happy, and better able to write. But there are three kinds of exercise that are especially suited to writing: walking, running, and biking. What these three have in common is that they are solitary and monotonous. In short: they are perfect for letting your mind wander.
I love racquetball. It’s fun and it offers an excellent workout, but it’s not great for helping me write. It’s not a solitary activity, and I have to think about the activity at hand. Yes, it’s good for stimulating the heart and the brain, but it doesn’t give my mind time to wander.
In my interview with Josh Funk, he said, “I find that my best ideas come in those moments where my mind is free to wander.” He’s not alone. Henry Miller wrote: “Most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever.”
Stepping away from your house or office to go for a walk (or run, etc.) gets you away from distractions, and lets your mind do its thing. Albert Einstein apparently came up with his Theory of Relativity while riding his bike. (That anecdote came from a rather great article on this very subject from Psychology Today. It’s worth reading if you’re interested in the science of how walking can stimulate the brain.)
How to walk for maximum effect
Your mileage may vary, but I find that to get the most out of walking, I need to walk without listening to music, and I need to bring my cell phone, with a dictation app launched and ready. I use Dragon Dictation, which is free, and which works pretty well. I prefer to walk at a brisk pace to get the maximum health benefit, but maybe your mind works better at a casual stroll so you can appreciate your surroundings.
I have a dog. When I first got her, I was hoping that walking her would give me the same benefit as walking solo, but I have not found that to be the case. So I have to walk her, and then go and walk myself.
Because I like to have my phone ready to record ideas, I prefer walking to biking. If you don’t need to record your every thought, that may not be a concern. But if you come home from your walk to find, like I did today, that your dog has chewed up three pencils and half of your kids’ homework, you run the risk of forgetting all the wonderful ideas you had while you clean up the mess. (Also, I find I have to pay too much attention to things like traffic and maintenance with biking — but again, your mileage may vary.)
Health-wise, you don’t have to walk every day. Doctors say three 40-minute sessions a week is enough. But for your writing, I recommend walking any chance you can get, partially for practical reasons. The weather may not cooperate. Life may get in the way. I’ve learned to grab my walking opportunities whenever I can. Every walk or run or bike ride won’t necessarily produce immediate results. But that’s OK. If you make it a routine to go as often as you can, you’ll find your ideas will come more easily and your writing will be stronger. And there’s also this, from Charles Dickens: “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.”