There’s a reason great minds like Steve Jobs were known for taking walking meetings. A brisk stroll can be an excellent time to induce some of your best thinking, and it’s not just hearsay, either. Research from Stanford proves that walking boosts creative thinking significantly, both during and shortly thereafter a walk. Let’s look into why this happens.
What the study showed
The study, which involved 176 college students and other adults, found that on average a person’s creative output increased by 60% when walking versus sitting.
The research comprised of four commonly-used experiments to gauge creative thinking, and participants performed these tasks in various conditions — sitting indoors, walking indoors on a treadmill (both times facing a blank wall), and walking outside or sitting outside while being pushed in a wheelchair. The wheelchair was used to present visual movement like walking outside, but in a seated position.
What was clear in the results was that walking significantly improved the participants creativity versus sitting. But interestingly, despite what you might think, being outside wasn’t the driving force in the positive results; walking on a treadmill indoors — facing a blank wall, no less — still showed strong results, meaning it was the act of walking itself that drove the creativity, not necessarily the stimulation of the outside world around them.
What causes walking to boost creativity?
The Stanford researchers didn’t hypothesize on why the mind was more creative when walking, but scientists have some theories: In the journal Frontiers in Public Health, three brain researchers speculated that complex human cognition, which includes our ability to innovate, is developed alongside the ability to walk.
To put that into layman terms, the activity of walking requires the simultaneous use of multiple parts of the brain, because walking upright is complicated, and large portions of the brain are required to coordinate movements and balance. The theory is, then, that by walking and therefore activating these parts of the brain, it also activates the brain structures that allow us to access our most sophisticated cognitive abilities. In short, walking unlocks more of our brain, specifically the part associated with creativity.
These are merely scientific theories, at this point, but it would explain why walking vs sitting, whether outdoors or indoors, clearly improves our creativity.
Focused-thinking vs creative thinking
Interestingly, while creative thinking is improved when walking, the same can’t be said for focused thinking, according to the Stanford research. When conducting their testing, researchers also threw in a word-association task, designed to measure insight and focused thinking. Here, the participants performed mildly worse when walking.
Productive creativity involves a series of steps – from idea generation to execution – and the research, the study said, demonstrated 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 know that physical activity is imperative for our metabolic health, and an overly sedentary lifestyle, blended with poor nutritional choices, is adversely affecting a huge portion of the population today (nearly 100M people in the US have prediabetes and around 80% don’t even know they have it). Not only will a brisk walk help keep you metabolically healthy, but according to research, it will also help improve your creativity. And that’s a win-win in our book.