New research finds that walking, whether indoors or outdoors, may be more beneficial than sitting in getting your creative juices flowing.
Looking to boost your creativity? You may want to get up from your chair and start walking. While regular aerobic exercise has been associated with protecting cognitive abilities, now, a new study by Stanford University researchers finds that walking indoors or outdoors may heighten creative thinking more than sitting. What’s more, the act of walking is responsible for the burst of creativity, not the environment.
The study, published by the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, consisted of four experiments involving 176 college students and other adults who completed tasks that measured creative thinking
Participants were asked to think of alternate uses for common objects and to come up with original analogies to capture complex ideas. The researchers found that those who walked instead of sitting or being pushed in a wheelchair consistently gave more creative responses. When asked to solve problems with a single answer, however, the walkers fell slightly behind those who responded while sitting.
Study participants were placed in several situations, including: facing a blank wall while walking indoors on a treadmill or sitting indoors; walking outdoors; or sitting outdoors while being pushed in a wheelchair. Researchers put seated participants in a wheelchair outside to present the same kind of visual movement as walking. Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.
The study also compared different combinations, such as two consecutive seated sessions, or a walking session followed by a seated one. The walking or sitting sessions used to measure creativity took from five to 16 minutes, depending on the tasks being tested.
Three of the experiments used 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 provided with several sets of three objects and had four minutes to think of as many responses as possible for each set. If no other participant in the group gave a certain response, it was considered novel. Researchers also measured whether a response was appropriate. For example, a “tire” could not be used as a pinkie ring.
The overwhelming majority of the participants in these three experiments were more creative while walking than sitting, according to the researchers. In one of those experiments, participants were tested indoors, first sitting and then walking on a treadmill. The study found that the creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when the person was walking.
A person walking indoors, on a treadmill in a room facing a blank wall, or walking outdoors in the fresh air produced twice as many creative responses compared to a person sitting down, according to one of the experiments.
Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology, and co-author of the study, told Healthline the study had one surprising finding. “The boost remained even after the walk was completed. So, if you need to “break set” and come up with a fresh perspective, take a quick walk, even around the office, and think on your problem. According to our studies, you don’t need to be simultaneously walking for the creative boost to show up.”
Oppezzo and colleague Daniel L. Schwartz, Ph.D., also found that creative juices continued to flow in study participants after a walk, even when they sat down again. Schwartz told Healthline, “Many people believe that creativity is a fixed trait, that people are born with it or not. We showed a simple way to improve creativity that seemed to work for just about everyone in the studies.” Schwartz continued, “There is some recent evidence in an area called inactivity physiology. This works suggests that sitting for long periods of time is not just a lack of exercise. It triggers a set of processes that may not be optimal for good health. If the goal of being more creative also gets people to walk for a few minutes every now and again during the day, it is a double win.”
When asked how the study findings differ from any previous studies on the subject of walking and cognitive abilities, Oppezzo told Healthline, “To our knowledge, previous research tested cognitive abilities after aerobic exercise, speed, and accuracy during aerobic exercise, or long term benefits of aerobic activity on the brain. This was the first to our knowledge to assess the real time effects of non-aerobic, casual walking on creative idea generation.”
The study’s fourth experiment evaluated creativity by measuring people’s abilities to generate complex analogies to prompt phrases. The most creative responses captured the deep structure of the prompt. For instance, the researchers pointed out that for the prompt “a robbed safe,” a response of “a soldier suffering from PTSD” captures the sense of loss, violation and dysfunction. “An empty wallet” does not.
One hundred percent of the participants who walked outside responded with at least one high-quality, novel analogy compared to 50 percent of those seated inside.
There was a limitation of the study, in that even though it found 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 in the press statement.
Researchers also gave participants a word-association task. Participants, who were provided with three words, had to come up with 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, people who responded while walking performed mildly worse than those who responded while sitting, according to the study.
Emphasizing that productive creativity involves a series of steps, from idea generation to execution, Oppezzo said the research showed that the benefits of walking applied to the divergent element of creative thinking, but not to the more convergent, or focused thinking characteristic of insight.
“We’re not saying walking can turn you into Michelangelo. But it could help you at the beginning stages of creativity. We already know that physical activity is important and sitting too often is unhealthy,” said Oppezzo.
Finally, Oppezzo said the study justifies the benefits of working physical activity into the day, whether it’s recess at school or a walking work meeting. “We’d be healthier, and maybe more innovative for it,” said Oppezzo.