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U of T professor takes her meetings for a hike outdoors

Margaret MacNeill says she’s been doing her “walk and talks” as a professor since 1990.


In the late 1980s, when she was working as a personal trainer to put herself through graduate school in Vancouver, Margaret MacNeill would take older or overweight clients on walks along the Stanley Park seawall to talk about their fitness goals. Some people felt more comfortable discussing their bodies in a casual setting away from the gym, she says.

Dr. MacNeill, now an associate professor in the department of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto, brings the same concept to the walking meetings she organizes as part of the university’s Interprofessional Education initiative, which brings together 11 health sciences faculties. Instead of lecturing about wellness inside a classroom, for instance, she gets student doctors and nurses outside to walk and talk. Hierarchical barriers fall and ideas flow. “It’s a wonderful ice-breaker,” says Dr. MacNeill.

The basic science at play is simple: moderate activity gives you energy, and the fresh air and natural light can stimulate more creativity and open dialogue than the sterile fluorescent glow of an office or classroom. What’s more, incorporating exercise into your daily schedule is an important step toward treating physical health as part of your everyday life, says Dr. MacNeill, not a separate “medicalized” activity that gets dropped when your schedule becomes too tight.

Dr. MacNeill says she’s been doing her “walk and talks” as a professor since 1990. She walks in any season, but says she prefers snow to rain. She once planned a conference during skating sessions at the ice rink at Toronto’s Harbourfront.

American corporate director and entrepreneur Nilofer Merchant is also a convert to walking meetings, spurred on by the fact that the average North American sits for 9.3 hours each day, a lifestyle “disease” that she says is killing us. But the benefits go beyond health. “Getting out of the box,” says Ms. Merchant, “leads to out-of-the-box thinking.”

Small groups, quiet routes, comfortable shoes and a topic that requires minimal note taking (for example, the start of a project) are the keys to an effective walking meeting, says Ms. Merchant. Putting away your smartphone helps, too. Although intended to connect people, mobile devices often prevent us from truly engaging with one another – which is the reason most meetings are held in the first place.

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