Study Finds Walking Boosts Creativity

View from a walk along the Charles River in Boston.

View from a walk along the Charles River in Boston.

Many of history’s most famous thinkers were walkers—Henry David Thoreau, Charles Dickens, Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs, and Walt Whitman, to name just a few—and many of them held a deep belief that walking boosted their creativity. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, from Stanford researchers gives scientific weight to this belief.

The study, composed of a series of four experiments, looked at idea generation conducted while sitting and while walking, using different experiment constructions, for example, walking outside versus walking on a treadmill, sitting first, then walking, and so on. Walking was the clear winner. In the first and the most straightforward experiment, where participants completed a four-minute task of creativity first while sitting, then during a walk on the treadmill, researchers found that walking increased participants’ creativity by 81 percent.

Walking itself, whether done on the treadmill inside while starting at a blank wall or outside, was found to produce this greater creativity. For example, two out of the four experiments compared creative idea production for sitting, walking on the treadmill, and walking outside. Participants exhibited greater creative divergent thinking—or what you might think of as free-flowing ideas—whether they walked outside or on the treadmill. Moreover, participants experienced a residual creative boost when they were tested while sitting after they had first walked. In contrast, participants who were tested twice but both times while sitting did not show any improvement, demonstrating it was not merely an issue of repetition.

To measure creativity, researchers administered two types of tests. In the first three experiments, participants were told to generate new uses for common objects, such as a button, a shoe, and a key. As an example of this kind of test, one participant heard “button” and brainstormed “as a doorknob for a dollhouse, an eye for a doll, a tiny strainer, to drop behind you to keep your path.” The last experiment used a different kind of test for metaphoric-creativity thinking, which asks participants to come up with symbolic equivalencies for the prompt they are given. For example, a candle burning low might produce “life ebbing away” or, as an example of a more creative response, “the last hand in a gambler’s last card game.”

Previous studies have already found that aerobic activities, such as running, promote greater creativity. Yet, for those who don’t have time to run or who simply don’t want to, taking a quick walk can be a great way to get the creative juices flowing. On a broader note, it also points to the importance of gym class in schools, which seem to be disappearing, and provides yet one more reason for effective and supported workplace wellness programs.

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8 Comments

Filed under Health/Wellness, Inspiration

8 responses to “Study Finds Walking Boosts Creativity

  1. OK, now I REALLY want a treadmill desk!

  2. I used to walk all the time in high school and college when joining a gym wasn’t always feasible. But in the past years with all my gym and studio experimenting, I let walking fall by the wayside. Well, one month ago I got a fitbit and all that has changed. I am a walking maniac now! It’s great to get the mind flowing like the studies show, and it’s also an awesome way to catch up with friends. I’m planning to write about it at some point . . . it feels like a liberation from the gym and a “coming home” of sorts to an exercise that feels natural. I still like a few classes for the weight lifting/toning aspect, but there’s no question that the walking has transformed me. (The 30clean helped too though! Today is day 29.)

    • What a coincidence on the fitbit–I just found mine, which had been misplaced for quite a while! I think fitbit has actually changed lots of people’s lives, it’s kind of amazing the power of a little gadget. As for walking, I’m totally with you (and may be posting more on the subject). I have some really wonderful associations with walking, esp. relating to connection. Can’t wait to read when you write on that. (And definitely on the 30clean!)

  3. Now I will always think about this when I want to skimp on a good cardio workout. My brain and creativity usually have more pull than just wanting to be fit. 🙂 Also, I will have to look into this fitbit thing, Nina.

    • As walking relates to creativity, I suspect it’s most effective once you’ve been sitting and needing some blood moving in the brain. But I think the earliest morning (straight from bed and half in dreams) can be the most creative time and perhaps not the most fruitful to walk beforehand.

  4. I didn’t even need to be convinced! I take a walk every single time I get “stuck” on a writing project, and it almost always gives me new ideas (and it never fails to at least get me out of the house and make me feel better). I love hearing about an actual study on this, though. Very cool. You’ve inspired me to take a walk this morning!

    • Oh, I love when ‘inspired’ and ‘you’ are in the same sentence. ; )
      Seriously though, a walk (or a run, even a quick one) always helps!

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