One step at a time: walking and creativity

We know exercise is good for your physical being, but research shows that a simple walk can also significantly boost your creative problem solving. Stepping away from your desk may give you an extra mental step.

Aerobic exercise, such as running, has been previously shown to improve brain functioning and creative problem-solving. But going for a 30-minute run in the middle of the workday isn’t realistic for many workers. So Stanford University researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz wondered if something as simple as a short walk could help people perform better on creative tasks. To answer this question, the researchers conducted a series of experiments exploring the connection between walking and creativity.

In an initial experiment, participants were seated in a small room at a desk facing a blank wall. They were given four minutes to describe as many novel, but realistic, uses for ordinary objects (e.g., a brick). They were then asked to do the same thing while facing a blank wall and walking on a treadmill at a self-selected pace. The result? They found that participants were not only generating more ideas, but even more innovative ideas. In fact, participants generated 60% more responses when walking on a treadmill.

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers again had participants do the same task, but this time had three conditions: sitting followed by walking; walking followed by sitting; and sitting for both sessions. Those who sat and then walked showed the same creativity boost found in the first study. Interestingly, participants who performed the task first while walking and then again while sitting showed higher creativity in both sessions than those who only sat. This showed that walking had a positive influence on creativity that persisted even after participants had sat back down.

Because outdoor walks are a more common midday break than walking on treadmills, the researchers also tested the effect of being outdoors on creativity. Sitting outdoors produced significantly more creative responses than sitting indoors. However, walking (both indoors and outdoors) dramatically increased levels of creativity, with those walking outdoors generating the most creative output.

This study suggests taking even a 10-minute walk during the day may help you generate new approaches to your work. So the next time you want to get your creative juices flowing, consider scheduling a walking meeting to brainstorm ideas or just take a step (or two) away from your desk.