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Walk the talk: Why you have to try this new (and healthy) business meeting style

Barack Obama walks with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough down the West Wing Colonnade of the White House

Charles Dharapak/The Associated Press

If sitting is the new smoking – as this alarming infographic suggests – then walking is the new suit and tie.

U.S. President Barack Obama has made a habit of promenading around the White House grounds with his chief of staff. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Hikmet Ersek, CEO of Western Union Co., have abandoned the boardroom in favour of group outings on foot.

"Walking meetings" are a full-blown trend, Bloomberg reports. And according to new research, there's no downside to walking the talk.

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Walking, unlike driving, does not interfere with multitasking or the ability to perform a complex cognitive task, a new study from the University of Michigan has found.

Researchers asked healthy adults aged 18 to 39 to memorize numbers randomly placed on a tic-tac-toe grid, and then enter the numbers with a keypad while standing still or walking at different speeds.

The assumption was that walking would impair their ability to do the complex task, said Julia Kline, lead author of the study, published online Thursday in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Instead, "our young healthy subjects performed equally well standing still, walking slowly and walking quickly, almost at running speed," she said.

During the study, participants had sensors attached to their heads to measure brain function using electroencephalography (EEG). The sensors picked up brain activity in the area responsible for locating objects in space, she said, adding that the EEG showed the same magnitude of activity in this area "at all walking speeds."

Kline and colleagues theorized that the two activities – walking and spatial cognitive tasks – may be dissimilar enough to rely on different functional units of the central nervous system.

The findings support the growing popularity of walking meetings and treadmill desks, Kline said. At least when it comes to tasks involving short-term memory and spatial cognition, workers can go for a brisk walk or run, "and you won't have any kind of decrease in performance," she said.

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In fact, there's a chance that employers who embrace the walking trend will get more brain for their buck. A study from Stanford University released in April found that walking boosted creative output by an average of 60 per cent.

The Stanford study involved 176 adults who participated in four activities: walking outside, walking indoors on a treadmill, sitting indoors or sitting outdoors while being pushed in a wheelchair.

Throughout the study, participants completed standard tests that measure divergent thinking (associated with creativity) and convergent thinking (linked to focused attention).

The researchers found that walking had a neutral effect on focused thinking. But walking indoors increased participants' creativity scores, while walking outside produced "the most novel and highest quality analogies," the authors wrote. The effect was so powerful that researchers detected a residual creative boost in seated participants who had taken an earlier walk.

Brainstorming on a walk cuts down on the fidgeting and blank stares that bog down the average board meeting, according to Seth Goldman, CEO of Honest Tea. When he takes employees on walking meetings, "they're not checking their e-mail, they're not drifting off or looking at other things," he said in a Bloomberg video.

Next to the benefits of strolling on the job, even standing desks are starting to look old school.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More


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