Walking meetings foster good discussions

Updated: Jul 11, 2019

Get off your seat and onto your feet for a productive meeting or seminar.

Photo: skynesher/iStock

Imagine a group of employees or grad students gathered for a seminar. They’re probably sitting around a table in a nondescript room with the seminar leader lecturing in front ... Yawning yet?

Thinking on your feet

One antidote to that bored, antsy feeling is moving your seminar outdoors and walking as you talk. From Aristotle to Zuckerberg, several movers and shakers throughout history have been known for their walking meetings.

Research shows that the act of walking may boost verbal memory and creativity. Walking in a natural environment, such as a park, may have added benefits for stress reduction and well-being.

Learning about teaching

One recent study from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm focused on walking seminars for college students. The participants were 131 students and nine teachers who were accustomed to traditional indoor classes. For the study, they took part in outdoor walking seminars and then reported how they felt about the experience.

Each seminar group was divided into subgroups of two to four students while walking. A teacher moved among the subgroups, listening and taking note of interesting issues that came up. These issues were later discussed when the whole group gathered together.

The seminars chosen for the study were particularly amenable to walking because they:

  • Were focused on students exchanging ideas rather than a teacher presenting facts and figures

  • Didn’t require whiteboards, slideshows, or other presentation aids

  • Didn’t require intensive note taking

What the study revealed

Afterward, both students and teachers gave the walking seminars generally high marks. More than 70% of students reported that the discussion, the quality of the seminar, the opportunities to speak up, and their sense of well-being were improved, compared to their past experiences with indoor seminars. And this positive reaction didn’t seem to be affected by how physically active they typically were.

More than 80% of students in the study said they appreciated being outdoors and enjoyed the exercise.

Some potential drawbacks to walking seminars were also noted. There were mixed opinions about whether walking while talking adversely affected hearing what others had to say. The students also reported a slight decline in staying on topic and seriousness (although it’s hard to say whether the latter was actually a bad thing).

"Walk with me"

The researchers behind the study offered some insights that could be helpful to anyone interested in organizing a walking meeting. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Meeting goal. The researchers say that walking meetings may be most appropriate when you’re aiming for open discussion and deepened understanding of a given topic.

  • Group size. According to the researchers, led by Olle Bälter, Ph.D., it’s ideal to divide larger group into subgroups of three people. “Four is possible, but requires wide walking paths and strong voices,” they say.

  • Location. The site for your walking meeting should be quiet and uncrowded enough to allow for conversation. If possible, scope out the site just prior to the meeting. The researchers say that, even though they were lucky enough to have a park next door, they were sometimes challenged by “construction work …, park maintenance, and outings by nearby schools and daycare facilities.”

  • Inclusivity. Some individuals may be unable or unwilling to participate in a walking meeting. They may have physical ability issues or not be wearing the right shoes that day, for example. Check with participants in advance and adjust your plans as needed.

About the author

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a freelance health and psychology writer.

Key reference

Bälter, O., Hedin, B., Tobiasson, H., & Toivanen, S. (2018). Walking Outdoors During Seminars Improved Perceived Seminar Quality and Sense of Well-Being Among Participants. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(2), 303. doi:10.3390/ijerph15020303