New research shows that walking boosts creative thinking. In a series of experiments, researchers from Stanford University in California compared levels of creativity in people while they walked with while they sat and found creative output went up by an average of 60% while walking.
Many people claim that they come up with their best ideas while walking. Steve Jobs, late co-founder of Apple, used to hold meetings while walking, and Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, has also been seen doing the same.
Now, a study by Dr. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, may explain why. They report their findings in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.
They found that the act of walking itself does the trick – it does not matter whether the walk is indoors or outdoors, it has the same effect in boosting creative inspiration.
In one experiment, they found that compared with sitting down, walking indoors on a treadmill facing a blank wall or walking outdoors in the fresh air produced twice as many creative responses.
Dr. Oppezzo says she thought “walking outside would blow everything out of the water, but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results, which surprised me.” She says theirs appears to be the first study to look specifically at the effect of non-aerobic walking on simultaneously generating new ideas, and compare it with sitting.
The effect of walking appears to persist for a little while; even if people sat down shortly after a walk, their creative juices continued to flow, the researchers found.
Creative thinking tested for non-aerobic walking versus sitting, indoors and outdoors
To carry out their four experiments, Dr. Oppezzo and Prof. Schwartz recruited 176 college students and other adults, and had them complete tasks that researchers normally use to measure creative thinking.
They placed the participants in various conditions, comparing non-aerobic walking to sitting, indoors and outdoors. When outdoors, for instance, the walkers would walk, and the sitters were pushed in wheelchairs around a pre-determined path on the Stanford campus.
The reason for pushing sitters around in wheelchairs in the outdoor parts of experiments was to give them the same visual movement as walking.
The participants also underwent different combinations of walking and sitting. For example, there might be two consecutive walking sessions, or two consecutive seated sessions, or a walking session followed by a seated one. The sessions lasted from 5 to 16 minutes, depending on the tasks the participants were asked to complete.
Tests of divergent thinking
In three of the experiments, the participants undertook tests of their divergent thinking creativity. Divergent thinking is where you generate ideas by thinking of lots of possible solutions.
Walkers scored an average of 60% higher on divergent thinking creativity than when they were sitting,the researchers say.
For these tests, the participants were asked to think of as many uses as they could for a given object. They were given three objects at a time, and each time, they had 4 minutes to think of as many uses of the three objects as they could.
The responses were marked according to novelty (nobody else in the group had thought of it) and appropriateness (for example, it would be unrealistic to suggest a tire could be used as a ring on a finger).
In these three experiments, the vast majority of the participants scored higher on divergent thinking creativity while walking than while sitting.
In one particular experiment carried out indoors, participants walking on a treadmill scored an average of 60% higher on divergent thinking creativity than when they were sitting.
There was also a fourth experiment that tested a more complex type of creativity. The tester gives the participants prompts to which they have to respond with complex analogies. The more the analogy captures the deep structure of the prompt, the more it scored on high quality. For instance, in response to the prompt “a robbed safe,” a response like “empty wallet” would not score as high on quality as “a soldier suffering from PTSD,” which captures the sense of loss, dysfunction and violation.
This experiment found that walking outside resulted in 100% of participants generating at least one high-quality complex analogy, compared with only 50% when sitting indoors.
No effect on focused thinking
The study also showed that not all thinking is the same. Divergent, brainstorm thinking is different to convergent thinking that requires single, correct answers.
Productive creativity involves a series of steps, from generating ideas to execution, and not all using the same type of thinking process.
To test the effect of walking versus sitting on convergent thinking, the researchers gave the participants word-association exercises. For each exercise, the participants looked at three words, then had to say the word that linked all three. For instance, the correct response to “Swiss, cake and cottage” would be “cheese.”
The results showed that when performing this test, walking produced slightly worse scores than sitting.
Dr. Oppezzo says the study shows walking appears to benefit the creative steps that involve divergent thinking. Convergent thinking, on the other hand, does not appear to benefit.
Prof. Schwartz says more work is now needed to find the underlying causes, but their findings provide a “very robust paradigm that will allow people to begin manipulations, so they can track down how the body is influencing the mind.”
One of the key questions to investigate will be to determine if it is just walking, or any form of mild physical activity, that has this effect on creativity.
Dr. Oppezzo says in the meantime:
“This study is another justification for integrating bouts of physical activity into the day, whether it’s recess at school or turning a meeting at work into a walking one. We’d be healthier, and maybe more innovative for it.”
In another study, researchers found that walking can reduce heart risk as much as running. Reporting the study in April 2013, Medical News Today describes how, after comparing 33,060 runners in the National Runners’ Health Study and 15,045 walkers in the National Walkers’ Health Study, investigators concluded that brisk walking can reduce a person’s risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol just as much as running can.
Written by Catharine Paddock PhD