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Can Walking Improve Creativity?
Many say they do their best thinking while walking and a new study affirms its creative effects
5/6/2014By Craig Weatherby
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Image Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, was known for his walking meetings.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also been holding meetings on foot … and a new study suggests they’re onto something.

And, according to a study from the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, creative thinking improves while a person is walking and for a little while thereafter.

Perhaps surprisingly, the results showed that walking indoors and outdoors boosted creative inspiration to similar extents.

Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.

Prior research shows that aerobic exercise – running, biking, and swimming – protects and enhances cognitive functions (thinking and memory) over both the short and long term (Napoli N et al. 2014; Volkers KM et al. 2014; Alves CR et al. 2014).

But until now, there no one had examined the effect of normal, non-aerobic walking on the generation of new ideas, or compared it with creative output while sitting.

Whether inside or out, walking beat sitting for creative thinking
The Stanford study was led by Professor Daniel Schwartz and doctoral student Marily Oppezzo, who’s now an adjunct faculty member at Santa Clara University.

It encompassed four experiments involving 176 college students and other adults who completed tasks commonly used to gauge creative thinking (Oppezzo M, Schwartz DL 2014).

The participants were placed in different conditions:
  • Sitting indoors facing a blank wall
  • Walking indoors on a treadmill facing a blank wall
  • Walking outdoors along a set path on the Stanford campus
  • Being pushed in a wheelchair along the same campus path, to mimic the visual experience of the outdoor walkers.
Different combinations, such as two consecutive seated sessions, or a walking session followed by a seated one, were also compared.

The walking or sitting sessions used to measure creativity lasted anywhere from 5 to 16 minutes, depending on the tasks being tested.

And the results show that, compared to sitting, walking – either indoors on a treadmill facing a blank wall or outdoors – produced twice as many creative responses.

“I 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,” Oppezzo said.

The study also found that creative juices continued to flow even when a person sat back down shortly after a walk. Three of the experiments relied on a “divergent thinking” creativity test.

Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.

In these experiments, participants had to think of alternate uses for a given object. They were given several sets of three objects and had four minutes to come up with as many responses as possible for each set.

A response was considered novel if no other participant used it. Researchers also gauged whether a response was appropriate.

The overwhelming majority of the participants in these three experiments were more creative while walking than sitting, the study found.

In one of those experiments, participants were tested indoors – first while sitting, then while walking on a treadmill … and creative output rose by an average of 60 percent when the person was walking.

A fourth experiment measured people's abilities to generate complex analogies to verbal prompts, with those that captured the deepest meaning of the verbal prompt deemed the most creative responses.

For example, for the prompt “a robbed safe”, a response of “a soldier suffering from PTSD” better captures the sense of loss, violation and dysfunction, compared with “an empty wallet”.

In a striking result, 100 percent of those who walked outside generated at least one high-quality, novel analogy compared with just 50 percent of those seated inside.

Walking didn't aid focused thinking
While the study showed that walking benefited creative brainstorming, it did not have a positive effect on the kind of focused thinking required for single, correct answers.

“This isn't to say that every task at work should be done while simultaneously walking, but those that require a fresh perspective or new ideas would benefit from it,” said Oppezzo.

The researchers gave participants a word-association task commonly used to measure insight and focused thinking. 

Given three words, participants had to generate the one word that could be used with all three to form compound words. For instance, given the words “cottage, Swiss and cake,” the correct answer is “cheese”.

In this test, those who responded while walking performed mildly worse than those who responded while sitting, according to the study.

Productive creativity involves a series of steps, from idea generation to execution. And the research, Oppezzo said, demonstrated that the benefits of walking applied to creative thinking, but not to the more “convergent” or focused thinking characteristic of insight.

“We're not saying walking can turn you into Michelangelo,” Oppezzo said. “But it could help you at the beginning stages of creativity.”

The study's strong findings will lead to further research on the neurological and physiological pathways, Schwartz predicted.

“There's work to be done to find out the causal mechanisms,” Schwartz said. “And this is a very robust paradigm that will allow people to begin manipulations, so they can track down how the body is influencing the mind.”

One question for future research is whether other forms of mild physical activity have similar creativity boosting effects.

In the meantime, as Oppezzo noted, “we already know that physical activity is important and sitting too often is unhealthy. 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.”

It seems clear that if you want to get creative, you should get walking!

  • Alves CR, Tessaro VH, Teixeira LA, Murakava K, Roschel H, Gualano B, Takito MY. Influence of acute high-intensity aerobic interval exercise bout on selective attention and short-term memory tasks. Percept Mot Skills. 2014 Feb;118(1):63-72.
  • Napoli N, Shah K, Waters DL, Sinacore DR, Qualls C, Villareal DT. Effect of weight loss, exercise, or both on cognition and quality of life in obese older adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Apr 30. [Epub ahead of print] 
  • Oppezzo M, Schwartz DL. Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2014 Apr 21. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Volkers KM, Scherder EJ. Physical performance is associated with working memory in older people with mild to severe cognitive impairment. Biomed Res Int. 2014;2014:762986. doi: 10.1155/2014/762986. Epub 2014 Mar 16.
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