Like most counselors, Leigh Weinraub was trained in the time-honored talk-therapy style: As the practitioner, she should position herself in a chair across from the patient, who’d be asked to lie down on a couch. “In grad school the professor would say, ‘People have to learn how to sit in their s— if they want to work through it,” she says.
But early on in her career, Weinraub kicked the couch to the curb. One day, while working with an anxious young woman in Chicago, the novice therapist impulsively decided to take their session to the place most conventional counselors would caution her not to: outside, in public.
“I took a big risk and said, ‘I know it’s 20 degrees, but put your scarf on and let’s get it in motion’,” Weinraub says, recalling the move that quickly earned her a rep as a renegade amongst her Northwestern University colleagues. “As soon as we got out of the elevator and took the first few steps, those jangly feelings totally subsided. She went from sitting in my office with her foot moving 100 miles an hour and her playing with her fingers to the picture of calm. You could sense that she was walking her way out of the parameters that she was stuck in in her life. And because we were side-by-side, we were solving problems together. There’s less of a power struggle, less awkwardness.”
A decade later, Weinraub has built a successful practice rooted in what she calls “Walk and Talk Therapy,” a method that was informed by her background as a top junior tennis player who later coached a Northwestern team to consecutive conference championships and a number-three national ranking. “All my problems were solved while I was moving,” explains the self-described “action-based therapist,” who also sees clients at the Miraval resort in Arizona, and who recently launched her own line of inspiring sportswear, Mind in Motion.
Having treated “thousands” of people in this way, Weinraub says she’s seen first-hand how “getting your mind in motion by taking a walk will get conversation brewing, improve communication, move you more toward truth, get you out of avoidance, get you unstuck—literally physically, physiologically—and simply, improve the quality of your life.”
It may also help save your life. Medical studies warn us that sitting increases our risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a variety of cancers, along with early death. This is a big problem for a nation who’s on our backsides for an average of nine hours a day, zoning out in front of the TV, scrolling Instagram, and working at an office. That doesn’t even take into account the endless hours spent in our cars.
No wonder Weinraub waxes lyrical about the rejuvenating powers of fresh air: “The frequency of being outside, it opens our eyes up, opens our lungs up, it literally could open our hearts up.” She’s taken therapeutic walks with many a married couple.
“I do almost all of my couples sessions [that way],” she says. “At the end of our hour, I send them off for another 30 minutes [on their own]. I can guarantee they are closer at the end of the walk than they’d be if they were sitting in an office, arguing. Quite a few have said, ‘Now my partner and I don’t go a week without having at least two post-dinner walks, and our communication skills have improved tremendously’.”
It’s not just those in need of therapy who can benefit from getting on board with what Weinraub calls a “movement of movement.” She’s also worked with office-bound employee groups on team-building missions, as well as numerous clients who’ve come to her desperate to slim down. “One said, ‘I’m 50 pounds overweight and feeling terrible.’ I told her, ‘You do not need to hire some trainer and be miserable on an elliptical machine, or go a sit awkwardly in a class you’re not inspired by. Let’s start with walking.’ [We went] from 30 minutes, to an hour, to an hour and a half.”
Then there was the person who was chronically fatigued, suffering from fibromyalgia and depression, and who could barely walk. After starting slowly, “she now she walks [about] 15 miles at a time.”
A big reason why walking-and-talking is so effective: “Because you’re distracted from the puzzle you’re trying to solve,” says Jane Isay, a veteran publisher and author of the forthcoming book, Unconditional Love: A GPS for Grandparents. Isay invites her writers to join her on jaunts in New York’s Central Park, during which they converse about pretty much everything but the manuscript they’re working on.
“The most productive conversations happen when you’re walking with somebody—there’s something about the side-by-side that allows the flow to happen,” says Isay, who was turned on to this theory while working with the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on his 1994 book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Damasio “argues that the emotions are essential to rationality and good decision-making, and they’re all in the body,” she explains. “If you’re staring at someone, you’re concentrating. When you’re being creative, you don’t want to be concentrating. Neuroscience and the anatomy of the brain have shown that the centers of creativity all light up when you’re not concentrating. That’s where your brain gets its renewal.”
Some suggestions for turning traditional sit-downs into more effective walk-and talks? The next time you schedule a meeting with a work colleague or business associate, suggest getting together at a waterside walkway or running track instead of a trendy trattoria. (“You’ll feel way more bonded afterward,” says Weinraub.) Or try doing a conference-call brainstorm while taking a few laps around the block.
“It’s about getting emotional fitness,” Weinraub says. “Take a minute and ask yourself: Who in your life right now is the type of person you want to go in nature with, feel the wind up against your face, and have a 45-minute delving discussion with that you will know damn well by the end of that 40 minutes? I promise, you are going to feel better; you’re going to process information; and they are going to push you to grow.”