A new study shows that walking—as opposed to sitting—significantly improves creative thinking. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why yet (more research is coming), but they hypothesize that the act of walking most likely triggers certain physiological changes that activate the part of the brain that fuels imagination.
The research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, involved 176 participants, mostly college students. Researchers conducted several experiments to investigate whether a simple walk could temporarily improve certain types of thinking, including free-flowing thought.
The results were significant. In one experiment, 100 percent of the participants came up with more creative ideas after a walk, compared to when they were sitting. In three other experiments, 95 percent, 88 percent, and 81 percent of the walker groups gave more creative responses compared to sitters.
In one test, researchers wanted to determine whether it was the act of walking itself or being out in nature that was boosting imagination. They had some participants walk outside, some walk on an indoor treadmill, and others get pushed in a wheelchair outdoors. Overall, the students who walked—whether inside or outside—gave more creative responses, compared to the sitting participants.
Although spending time outside does offer many cognitive benefits, noted researcher Marily Oppezzo, PhD of Santa Clara University, walking appears to have a very specific benefit of improving creativity.
In another experiment, the researcher would name an object, and the student would have to think of alternative ways to use the object. Students were also given a three-word association quiz. For example, if the word association was ‘cottage-Swiss-cake,’ the answer would be ‘cheese.’ Students were given the tasks first while sitting down and again while walking at a comfortable pace on a treadmill.
Then, with a different group of 48 students, researchers had some students sit down during both sets of tests, other students walk during both sets, and the rest walk and then sit. The findings showed that walking seemed to have a strong and residual effect on creativity that slowly tapered off.
Students came up with the most novel ideas when they were walking and the second most novel ideas when they were sitting during the second test (after walking during the first). They had the fewest novel ideas when they sat for both tests.
So the next time you find yourself in a creative slump—waiting for the next great idea to just pop into your head—get up and walk! Let the powerful flow of creativity begin to move through you, bringing the missing piece to your puzzle.