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  • Writer's pictureJohn Clapham

Walking and coaching - perfect partners for busy professionals

Updated: Apr 30


Photo by Rogério Martins: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-s-wearing-white-and-black-low-top-sneakers-981619/

If you’re keen to stay sharp and figure things out, walking, the outdoors and coaching make a potent combination.  This post introduces how the benefits of the outdoors, exercise and purposeful thinking combine to improve professional performance, health and well-being.


Spring into action

Spring has sprung or, more appropriately given the recent rain, emerged with a damp plop.  Nevertheless I’m looking forward to walking coaching again, accompanying people on their physical and mental explorations. 


Walking coaching is designed for getting unstuck, thinking differently, choosing options and deciding how to proceed.  It’s purposeful thinking that just happens to take place whilst walking.  The themes and process are similar on the indoor, in chair counterpart.  Personally I find walking coaching sessions are uniquely productive and refreshing, setting me up to progress and put what has been discussed into action with renewed energy. 


So why is that?  Intuitively it makes sense.  How often have you taken a few steps outside and a solution popped into your head?  How often do you return from a walk calmer and more energised?  Now combine those feelings with proven benefits of a facilitated conversation with a coach and you have a formula for a session which benefits both body and mind.


I’d suggest three factors combine to make this powerful mix - being outside, being in motion and facilitated thinking (coaching). 



One of Bristol's green parks - you don't have to go far to find a rejuvenating space
One of Bristol's green parks - you don't have to go far to find a rejuvenating space

It's great outdoors

It takes us a long time to shrug off our evolutionary roots.  Being outdoors, and especially in nature, is something we are hardwired to do, our bodies and brains crave open spaces, light and fresh air.  Many benefits arise from time outdoors anywhere, but are at their peak during time in nature, be it green, blue, or in the case of Dartmoor a sort of muddy brown-straw colour.  


It doesn’t take long to make a measurable difference, any exposure to nature appears to be beneficial, and research demonstrates that even regularly viewing two minute videos of natural settings helps well-being (Chenhao 2022).  Also significant is that after time outdoors the omnipresent feeling of time pressure is reduced (Johansson 2011


Personally, I believe there is something significant about changing scenery, it maybe the novelty of stepping out of familiar spaces, detaching from habitual thinking and themes of the office. This doesn't have to be beautiful Instagram-able scenes, I've had numerous productive conversations strolling around industrial estates, the outdoors is our backdrop, not the focus.

“We found evidence for associations between nature exposure and improved cognitive function, brain activity, blood pressure, mental health, physical activity, and sleep.”  (Jimenez 2021)

A body in motion puts ideas into action

Regular mild exercise is well recognised to lower the risk of many conditions including heart disease, stroke and diabetes.  There are more immediate advantages in the exploratory setting of a coaching conversation, where the goal is often to think differently or about something challenging, a boost of blood to the brain gives an extra edge.

Walking achieves this due to pressure waves created by foot impacts which increase cerebral blood flow, an effect not seen in all types of exercise, such as cycling.  Incidentally, these foot impacts also help maintain bone density and are preventative of osteoporosis and fractures.  


The benefits continue, exercise reduces stress and anxiety, putting you in a better mood, and helping to think quicker,and be 60% more creative. Its a solid foundation for a productive session, but these effects, including improved memory (Nagamatsu 2013) and concentration (Tine 2012) continue after the walk, so you get value from coaching and better thinking for hours afterwards. 


Perfect for a perambulation - The Floating harbour, Bristol
Perfect for a perambulation - The Floating harbour, Bristol

Keep in shape

If you’re keen to stay in shape an hour of walking burns between 200 and 300 calories, that’s at least twice as much as a sitting meeting, although I’m afraid thinking harder doesn’t make a significant difference.  Just like well-being aspects the benefits continue after the walk, an increased metabolic rate means burning more calories at rest, not only that it can reduce cravings for those all too tempting sugary snacks (Ledochowski 2015).


There is a balance to be struck between body and brain goals. To get more exercise and burn more calories whilst coaching we might walk quicker, add a weighted rucksack or seek tough terrain.  However during high intensity exercise we are less able to focus our thoughts and yield cognitive advantages.  You can experience this yourself by trying to work out next year’s strategic goals whilst sprinting for a bus.

“This isn’t to say that every task at work should be done while simultaneously walking, but those that require a fresh perspective or new ideas would benefit from it,”  - Marily Oppezzo, PhD

Purposeful thinking, preparing and doing

If so much can be gained from walking outdoors, why not just go for a walk alone?  It’s certainly a great way to unwind and think things through but it it doesn't suit every situation. Studies indicate that self coaching can be less effective and satisfying than working with a thought partner (Losch S, 2016).

The trouble is you are still in your own head, and your mind may be a fickle thought partner, more interested in short term comfort than long term fulfilment.  In these circumstances, especially with difficult decisions and uncertainty, it’s easy to avoid the issue, start dwelling or miss an opportunity.  Often the coach is engaged precisely because the desired way forward is not emerging or happening quickly enough from current thinking.


A coaching conversation is also more purposeful, in the presence of a skilled coach the process is guided towards agreed goals, keeping it on track and more likely to yield useful outcomes (Grant 2009) .  The level of challenge and accountability is greater (as agreed at the start) and a couch helps you to be honest with yourself, to notice patterns and possibilities, and even stretch the world a little.  They will also also assist in choosing and shaping meaningful goals that are more likely to be achievable. 


Open spaces, open minds, people walking somewhere that isn't Bristol
Open spaces, open minds, people walking somewhere that isn't Bristol

Photo by Armin Rimoldi


Closing Thoughts

If you’re keen to stay sharp and figure things out, walking, the outdoors and coaching are a powerful combination.  Exercise and open spaces bring physical and mental benefits, not just to mood but to thinking, creativity, and attention. All this enhances the potential of the coaching session.  The outdoors is helps avoidance and recovery from common overwork conditions including mental fatigue (Rita 20005) and burnout.


The novelty of escaping the home or work office, change in scenery and the cutting down of distractions often brings increased energy and focus.  Brain and body benefits continue after the session, including burning more calories and increasing problem solving ability.


In thought work and leadership, there are seldom obvious answers.  There are tough decisions, multiple ways to proceed, and challenging goals.  There are aspects of life and work to carefully balance. There’s no book describing what it is best to do in the unique circumstances of your organisation or career.

This means reflection and quality thinking are vital, for tactical and strategic ways forward as well as personal development.  So, if you are investing in yourself and coaching, why not maximise the benefits and take a walk?

 

Get in touch if you’d like to arrange a coaching session, or read more about my walk, think, do coaching.  


“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”- John Muir 

References

Chenhao Hu, Ke Zhu, Kun Huang, Bo Yu, Wenchen Jiang, Kaiping Peng, Fei Wang,

Using natural intervention to promote subjective well-being of essential workers during public-health crises: A Study during COVID-19 pandemic, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 79,2022,101745, ISSN 02724944, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2021.101745.


Grant, Anthony & Curtayne, Linley & Burton, Geraldine. (2009). Executive coaching enhances goal attainment, resilience and workplace well-being: A randomised controlled study. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 4. 396-407. 10.1080/17439760902992456. 


Jimenez MP, DeVille NV, Elliott EG, Schiff JE, Wilt GE, Hart JE, James P. Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Apr 30;18(9):4790. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18094790. PMID: 33946197; PMCID: PMC8125471.


Johansson, M., Hartig, T. and Staats, H. (2011), Psychological Benefits of Walking: Moderation by Company and Outdoor Environment. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3: 261-280. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01051.x


Ledochowski L, Ruedl G, Taylor AH, Kopp M. Acute effects of brisk walking on sugary snack cravings in overweight people, affect and responses to a manipulated stress situation and to a sugary snack cue: a crossover study. PLoS One. 2015 Mar 11;10(3):e0119278. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0119278. PMID: 25760042; PMCID: PMC4356559.


Losch S, Traut-Mattausch E, Mühlberger MD, Jonas E. Comparing the Effectiveness of Individual Coaching, Self-Coaching, and Group Training: How Leadership Makes the Difference. Front Psychol. 2016 May 3;7:629. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00629. PMID: 27199857; PMCID: PMC4853380.


Nagamatsu LS, Chan A, Davis JC, Beattie BL, Graf P, Voss MW, Sharma D, Liu-Ambrose T. Physical activity improves verbal and spatial memory in older adults with probable mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month randomized controlled trial. J Aging Res. 2013;2013:861893. doi: 10.1155/2013/861893. Epub 2013 Feb 24. PMID: 23509628; PMCID: PMC3595715.


Rita Berto, Exposure to restorative environments helps restore attentional capacity,

Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 25, Issue 3, 2005,

Pages 249-259, ISSN 0272-4944, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2005.07.001.


Tine, M. T., & Butler, A. G. (2012). Acute aerobic exercise impacts selective attention: an exceptional boost in lower-income children. Educational Psychology, 32(7), 821–834. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2012.723612


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