A lot has been said in recent years about the negative impact that sitting all day can have on the physical and mental health of workers who spend most of their time in front of a computer. Workers are encouraged to abandon their desks often to stretch their legs, rest their eyes, and clear their minds — and radiologists are no exception.
At Vanderbilt University, Reed A. Omary, MD, professor and chair of the department of radiology and radiological sciences, is championing a practice called walking meetings. The concept is simple: Instead of holding meetings in his office or a conference room, Omary often invites attendees to talk while they walk around the university’s Nashville, Tenn., campus.
Omary held his first walking meeting on the spur of the moment about five years ago. It was a nice day, and when the person he was meeting with arrived, he suggested that they take a walk outside. The approach fostered such a positive cognitive and physical experience that Omary started planning regular walking meetings whenever the weather was favorable, even asking guests to bring appropriate footwear for the occasion. “The more I did it, the more I realized the benefits over conventional meetings,” says Omary.
As Omary made walking meetings part of his regular schedule, he came across the Latin phrase solvitur ambulando in a poem by Billy Collins. The phrase, which means “it is solved by walking,” resonated with Omary, who realized that what he was doing wasn’t unique or fanciful — its benefits are scientifically noted. In fact, studies show that walking increases creativity and ideation, which are critical to improving problem-solving and decision-making skills.1 “The concept goes back to many ancient cultures, including the Greeks,” Omary explains. “It’s the notion of philosophers walking with their students, and some religious traditions incorporate it, too. It’s a way of clearing the mind, getting some exercise, and engaging more fully with one another.”
In this vein, many of Omary’s walking meetings involve discussions about philosophical topics like how choosing challenges that pose a real risk of failure can lead to more fulfilling careers. “Your mind kind of wanders as you walk, and ideas pop into your head as you see things,” he explains. “You think of solutions and concepts that might not occur to you otherwise, and you can talk through those ideas with people while you’re walking.”
Omary especially likes to incorporate walking into meetings with visiting professors and other guests, when the weather is good. He also prefers walking meetings
when talking with medical students about radiology and when recruiting fellows and faculty candidates to his department. “It offers a great opportunity to showcase
our campus when we have visitors or are recruiting new hires,” Omary says. “Over the past several years, The Princeton Review has ranked Vanderbilt anywhere
from the No. 1 to the No. 3 most-beautiful campus in America, so we want to show it off.”
A walking meeting was the approach Omary took when he interviewed Courtney M. Tomblinson, MD, for a fellowship position and again when he offered her a faculty position in the summer of 2018. “It’s a stimulating exercise that allows you to take a breath of fresh air, both figuratively and literally, putting you at ease,” Tomblinson says. “It gives you a chance to actually envision yourself in the place where you’ll be working, not just in the reading room, but the location where you will be spending your time and your life.”
Benefits and Conditions
In addition to allowing people to experience Vanderbilt, one of Omary’s favorite things about walking meetings are the chance encounters that often occur. For instance, Tomblinson recalls that during her fellowship interview she and Omary ran into Lucy B. Spalluto, MD, director of Vanderbilt’s Women in Radiology program. “When I returned to my residency program in Arizona, I got involved in the American Association for Women Radiologists, where Dr. Spalluto was on the board,” Tomblinson explains. “The only reason I knew her was because Dr. Omary had introduced us during our walking meeting.”
Another benefit is that walking meetings help reveal people’s character. For example, Omary was impressed when the leaders of two different hospitals stopped to pick up litter from the ground. “It’s really interesting to watch how somebody reacts when they see something that they didn’t cause, but they take the time to fix it,” Omary says. “Whether it’s picking up trash or smiling at someone who’s walking past, you see the way they interact with other people and their surroundings; you witness their body language. We aim to recruit people who treat others with respect. It can be difficult to assess this trait in a one-on-one meeting in a conference room.”
While walking meetings have many advantages, they also have limitations. For instance, Omary doesn’t hold walking meetings when the meeting involves a large group or inherently requires a formal approach. He also refrains from walking meetings when participants need to view a presentation or take notes, when the weather is bad, if the participant doesn’t have comfortable footwear, or if the participant doesn’t want to walk around campus or has a physical disability. “It’s important to recognize that not everyone is physically able to walk and that some people just might not be up for it — and that’s fine,” Omary explains.
For radiologists who spend much of their time sitting at a workstation, though, walking meetings can provide a much-needed respite. Tomblinson says that at the end
of each walking meeting she’s had with Omary, she’s felt reinvigorated. “They say that you’re supposed to take breaks, and even just a 10-minute walk can really help you hit the reset button and reenergize you,” Tomblinson says.
Whether radiologists plan walking meetings into their schedules or take serendipitous walking breaks, both approaches can offer an opportunity to get out of the reading room and be more visible and available to colleagues, referring physicians, and other care partners. “One of the great things about being in radiology is how we connect with others,” Omary says. “We’re really the hub of any healthcare system; everything runs through radiology. Walking meetings are a physical way of experiencing the critical position that we hold in patient care.”