Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

The Best Way to Chill, According to the Woman Who Helps World Leaders Find Theirs

And it’s not just taking a deep breath

Whether they preferred a quick jaunt or a four-hour trek, some of the greatest minds in history — Einstein, Gandhi, Beethoven and Jesus to name just a few — walked to relieve stress, mend relationships and write novels, source code or symphonies.

“I’ve hung around a lot of brilliant people, and 95 percent of them walk,” says Dr. Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of The Stress Institute and the Mindful Living Network, who has witnessed presidents, Supreme Court justices, Fortune 500 CEOs and the Dalai Lama talk about a practice of walking and reflection, pontificating and ruminating over decisions to be made. “President Obama is a big walker. Jimmy Carter, who was my professor at Emory, was always a big walker. During the negotiations for the peace accord with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, they walked whenever things got heated. It’s funny, we got the roots of walking in a spiritual practice, then cultural and only recently have we discovered the science showing what a tremendously powerful physiological and psychological thing walking is.”

But why?

Can putting one foot in front of the other at a middling to slow pace really be the equivalent of popping a couple of pills from Limitless? Hall will do you one better — she actually says it can be better than sex.

Here’s her reasoning:

It’s Ambulatory Xanax

“Stress raises your blood pressure and heart rate and releases cortisol, a substantial stress hormone,” Hall says. “You get tense, your memory gets bad and you get aggressive. Just 20 minutes of walking reverses the stress response and lowers your blood pressure — as well as increases your energy level by 20 percent while decreasing fatigue by 55 percent. No matter what your stress is — a deadline at work, a fight with your partner, financial concerns — walking decreases it and completely changes the physiology of your brain. Also, the longer you sit at a desk or on a couch, the longer you’re pooling that blood. Studies show that the muscle activity and the blood flow reverses the damage to leg arteries. It gives the body almost a high.”

It’s as Much About Your Ears, Eyes and Nose as It Is About Stretching Your Legs

“If you’re in an office building and go for a walk around the hall, you’re looking at the same people, the same colors on the wall, smelling the same smells, hearing the same lull of the air conditioning. You’re not stimulating your five senses at all. But if you go outside, you get the benefits of ecotherapy. The sun is shining. Or maybe it’s raining. The wind is blowing. Or maybe it’s not. It may smell great. Or maybe a sewage pipe has ruptured. Either way, all of your senses are engaged. And the moment that your senses start being engaged, the body becomes productive and creative.”

It Makes the Whole Right Side / Left Side of Your Brain Distinction Irrelevant

“When you’re thinking all the time, you’re using one hemisphere of your brain. After a couple minutes of walking, though, your right and left lobe balance like an infinity symbol because the blood is moving back and forth between barriers and feeding each other.”

It’s a Solitary Activity in Sad Movie Montages Only

When I do corporate work, whether it’s Microsoft or whomever, I suggest group walks. If you and I have a project, I’m going to say, ‘Let’s go for a walk’ rather than ‘Let’s sit around a table staring at our computers.’ Get out and walk while you talk. I have a lot of clients who walk with a group at lunch, or right when they get in in the morning. If you know you’re going to commute for an hour, get a walk in during the day with other people.”

It Could Save Your Marriage

“I’ve been married for 42 years. We are so ridiculously in love, intellectually and in every other way. We’ve walked every day of our life together — minimum 20 minutes. And when we were raising our children we walked after dinner every single night as a family for at least 30 minutes. The reason we did this is because when you’re raising children or when you’re in a relationship, if you say, ‘What’s going on with you?’ or ‘What happened at school today?’ you don’t mean for it to sound aggressive, but it often comes across as such because it’s a straightforward, pointed question. If you’re walking with someone, and the birds are chirping and the wind is blowing and you go, ‘Hey, how was school today?’ or ‘Did you hear so-and-so got divorced?’ it becomes a cadence in the relationship — like the rhythm of your feet.

“It also helps you train your relationship — not if but when you fight, when you have disagreements, when your heart is broken, when you’ve experienced betrayal or when you got the huge promotion: You put on your shoes, and you walk. And you share the good, the bad and the ugly. We’ve had addiction struggles in our family and walking made it easier to talk about them. Because you’re walking, you’re crying and you’re realizing, We have to talk about this. And for some reason the movement of your body propels you into honesty. For me, there’s almost a high after a long walk. It feels like you’re having sex it’s so fabulous.”

It’s More of a Saunter Than a Swagger

“Look at it like an adventure like Emerson and Thoreau did. Every time they’d leave in the morning, they’d take a deep breath, open the door, step out into the daylight and say, ‘What an adventure!’ Because whether you’re gone 10 minutes or 10 hours, when you come back, the world is totally different. The temperature’s changed, the light has changed, the wind has changed — life has changed. Thoreau’s word was sauntering. I love that word. I use that word. When I’m really pissed and start walking fast my husband will look at me, wink and say, ‘Saunter, darling.’

“We all buy these machines, we go to these trainers, and it’s just another addiction. Did you get this machine? Who’s your trainer now? Are you paleo? For God’s sake, let’s go back to some basic rhythms that we know sustain the universe, the world and our mental, spiritual and physical health.”