Ever noticed how conversations can flow more easily when you’re walking? We ask experts why moving our legs helps us to open up, resurface memories and feel comfortable to chat away.
BBC Two’s series Walking With… follows celebrities on solitary strolls along some of England’s most beautiful scenic routes. Each celebrity embarks on their walk, with a 360° camera in hand or overhead, while chatting away to us, to themselves, and to the strangers they meet along the way.
In a tweet about the show, Nick Grimshaw reflects on his episode spent trekking across the Northumberland coast: “On the walk I discuss all the big things: my childhood, life, death, love and everything in between. One of the most rewarding and nourishing days out I’ve ever had.”
Grimshaw’s tweet really resonated with me and my own experience of feeling at ease with opening up, unearthing memories and finding flow in conversation while walking.
Whether I’m counting laps around my local park with friends at the weekend or pacing up and down my flat on the phone to my sister, I’ve found walking to be an incredibly powerful tool for getting my brain moving in sync with my ambling legs – while sitting opposite even some of my closest pals at a restaurant can leave me stifled for what to say next.
To find out why walking is so good at fostering conversation, we’ve roped in the experts who explain how increasing your step count could help energise your friendships, work calls or Hinge dates.
Your brain is more alert when walking
Shane O’Mara, neuroscientist and author of In Praise Of Walking: The New Science Of How We Walk And Why It’s Good For Us, explains that our senses are heightened to protect us from danger when we’re walking.
“The world is dangerous when you’re moving in it – there are moving objects and there’s the danger of falling or getting lost – so you have to be alert,” O’Mara tells Stylist. “This means when you stand up and move around lots of things are going on in the brain that weren’t previously. Your visual acuity goes up, your hearing is slightly sharpened and your senses overall are a little more alert.”
With your brain more vigilant, you might find it easier to access new ideas and topics of conversation. “Ideas that would have been just below the level of consciousness when you’re seated can bubble into consciousness because more of the brain is active,” O’Mara continues.
And as your hearing is heightened, you might find you’re a better listener on the move too. “Walking is fundamentally a social activity,” he says. “When you think about how humans conquered the planet, we did this in groups and in tribes. We had to be acutely attuned to each other – we had to listen to each other.”
Moving in nature can help with connecting to the past
As Grimshaw discovered on his ramble round Northumberland, walking in nature can help us reflect and reconnect with things from the past.
Lara Just, a psychotherapist based in Cornwall and London, explains how walking on Hampstead Heath has helped foster rich conversation with some of her clients. “Walking can slowly and gently bring up a lot of things,” Just explains. “Thoughts and stories pop up in different ways that are less linear or structured.”
For Just, it’s the distractions that might catch your eye while meandering that can spark interesting and unexpected conversations. “I had one session with a client where a squirrel and a raven quarrelling on a tree brought up past experiences between their family members – this wouldn’t have necessarily happened if we’d been sitting in a room,” she recalls.
One of my favourite outdoor walking spots is the seafront near my family home in Southend-on-Sea, Essex. Wandering down the pier (the longest in the UK) affords me ample time and a welcome change of scenery from London life to catch up with family and friends.
But if you’re not near a countryside or coastline, walking in the city could help you feel more relaxed in conversation too. Dane McCarrick, lecturer in psychology at Leeds Trinity University, says being at peace with your surroundings, wherever they may be, can activate a ‘rest and digest’ mode in our bodies, rather than the ‘fight or flight’ mode driven by the sympathetic nervous system.
“When we’re in ‘rest and digest’, which can be triggered by activities such as urban walking, it can have a calming effect on how we feel,” McCarrick says. “This is due to our resting heart rate and blood pressure levels being maintained and the body’s natural activity being conserved.”
How walking can alleviate social anxiety
Awkwardly navigating eye contact over dinner or in a meeting can be the perfect catalyst for social anxiety. Whether it’s a one-to-one catch-up with a colleague or a heart-to-heart with a friend, walking alongside each other could help you ease into conversation.
“Walking side-by-side is a much more relaxed atmosphere than sitting opposite someone which can be very intense,” Just explains. “With very difficult topics, people often find it easier if they can look to the ground or the tree rather than look at me or the person they’re with directly.
“Social cues and eye contact while sitting down can be complicated but if we’re meandering at the client’s pace, we’ll often find a flowing, natural rhythm that can be much easier to deal with when you’re talking about difficult emotions.”
Abby Rawlinson, a London-based therapist who offers ‘walk and talk’ sessions, explained how taking a stroll can also help us forge new paths away from negative thought patterns.
“Research has found that walking in nature can decrease activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for negative thoughts and rumination,” she explains. When this part of the brain quietens, Rawlinson says that people are more likely to process their problems rather than get trapped in negative thought spirals.
Freed from our negative thoughts, we might find more space to access ideas, adopt new ways of thinking and be present in our interactions. “Walking not only releases tension and stimulates new thoughts and ideas, but it’s also a metaphor for moving forward,” the therapist explains. “Walking propels people forward – literally and figuratively.”
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