When Aristotle founded the Peripatetic School in 335 BC. he knew something we’re just discovering and science is corroborating. The Peripatetic school was known simply as the Peripatos. The word peripatoi was derived from the "colonnades" or "covered walkways" surrounding the Lyceum where the members met. Legend has it that the name Peripatetic came from Aristotle's habit of walking while lecturing. Translated from Greek, Peripatetic means "of walking" or "given to walking about.” The Peripatetic School was an informal institution whose members conducted philosophical and scientific inquiries while walking around the Lyceum in ancient Athens. Aristotle's students would follow him on long meandering walks around the Lyceum as he lectured and they engaged in philosophical and scientific inquiry.
Today, business people and students are giving up their Aeron chairs for “walk & talk” meetings and problem solving saunters. There is something about movement that engages our brain. We’ve all had the experience of being stuck on a problem then coming up with the solution while on a walk or working out in the gym. Psychiatrist Richard Friedman wrote recently in the New York Times about the deleterious effect sitting has on your brain and the mental benefits of walking. Friedman tells a personal story of returning to his locker in the gym after a shower and not being able to remember the combination to his lock. After numerous attempts and anxiety increasing that he’d be late to his next appointment, Friedman starts marching around the locker room naked, dripping wet when suddenly the numerical sequence pops back in his head. He runs back to his locker and voila, it opens.
Famous thinkers and creators from Beethoven to Steve Jobs were noted for walking around while dreaming up their next great Symphony or culture changing technological invention. In addition to Aristotle’s Peripatetic School poet William Wordsworth was said to have walked 175 thousand miles in his life. It was routine for Charles Dickens to walk 20 to 30 miles after a day of writing. Conservationist John Muir described walking as, “the only way to access the subject of writing and passion.” And Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that “all great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
This experience of solving problems while walking is similar to how our ancestors survived and thrived in a challenging environment. Roaming around the planes of Africa, the survival of early humans required finding opportunities and avoiding threats. Capitalizing on opportunities required problem solving and early humans solved these life threatening problems not from a chair, but while walking around.
So our brains evolved to depend on walking around. When we sit down to rest, we take the weight off our feet which literally sends a signal to our brain saying, “the threats are gone, we’ve captured all the opportunities so now relax.” Both our bodies and brains are given a signal to go to sleep, burning almost no calories and generating few new ideas.
So what is it about walking — besides increased blood flow to the brain — that facilitates thinking? Perhaps it’s the fact that you are constantly bombarded by new stimuli and inputs as you move about, which helps derail linear thinking and encourages a more associative, unfocused thought process.
Whatever the reason, you don’t have to move much to increase cognition; just standing will do the trick. In a recent study published by the Association for Psychological Science, two groups of subjects were asked to complete the Stroop test while either sitting or standing. The Stroop measures selective attention. Participants are presented with conflicting stimuli, like the word “green” printed in blue ink, and asked to name the color. Subjects thinking on their feet correctly answered the questions 32-milliseconds faster than those sitting.
The cognitive benefits of strenuous physical exercise are well known. UnSit honored Dr. John Ratey with our Walkie Award for his book Spark and his other publications about the effects of physical exercise on our brains. But it turns out that simply standing more and sitting less improves brain health and places these great benefits within reach of everyone.
All this furthers the argument for getting rid of sitting desks in favor of standing desks. A recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, assigned 34 high school freshman to standing desks for 27 weeks. The researchers found significant improvement in executive function and working memory by the end of the study. While there was no control group of students using a seated desk, it is unlikely that this change was a result of brain maturation, given the short time frame of the study.
This idea of standing up and walking around to think is contrary to the directions barked at students every day across America, “sit down and focus” It turns out that direction makes matters worse for the those of us trying to think.
So STAND UP EVERYONE and MOVE. Put an UnSit Under Desk Treadmill under your desk. You’ll feel better, live longer and will be much more likely to come up with the “next big idea.”
I walked 7,485 steps while researching and writing this blog post