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Walking Sparks Creativity More than Sitting or Being Outdoors

Apr 24, 2014 03:43 PM EDT
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People who do creative work often struggle with the hours they're required to log in front of a computer screen or behind a desk, but a new study offers plenty of reason to stand up and move around: Walking is strongly correlated with a spike in creative ideas.

The new study, published by the American Psychological Association, gives credence to the anecdotal notion that activity spurs creativity.

"Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking," said lead study author Marily Oppezzo of Santa Clara University. "With this study, we finally may be taking a step or two toward discovering why."

The creativity study involved 176 participants, mostly college students. The researchers found that the subjects consistently gave more creative answers on tests specifically designed to measure creative thinking, such as thinking of alternate uses for common objects or coming up with original analogies to express complex ideas.

One experiment found 100 percent of people tested gave more creative responses after taking a walk. Three other experiments also had strong results in favor of walking leading to greater creativity, with 95 percent, 88 percent and 81 percent of the subjects in the other experiments having more creative responses after walking compared with when they were sitting.

Subjects pushed around in a wheelchair before taking the creativity tests did not provide as creative of answers as those who were tested after walking on their own.

Among the creativity tests given was an exercise in word association, where the subject was given a series of three words and asked to give a one-word answer, for example "cheese" would be the answer to the list "cottage-Swiss-cake." Another test gave subjects a few minutes to come up with as many alternative uses for a common object as possible.

These tests were administered with different sets of words while the subjects were sitting at a desk facing a blank wall and while walking on a treadmill at an easy pace and facing a blank wall. Another test group was asked to sit for two alternative forms of the same test, with some subjects walking for both tests, and others sitting for one and walking for another.

"This confirmed that the effect of walking during the second test set was not due to practice," Oppezzo said. "Participants came up with fewer novel ideas when they sat for the second test set after walking during the first. However, they did perform better than the participants who sat for both sets of tests, so there was a residual effect of walking on creativity when people sat down afterward. Walking before a meeting that requires innovation may still be nearly as useful as walking during the meeting."

To test whether walking was the source of creative inspiration rather than being outdoors, the researchers compared the responses of people who walked outside or inside on a treadmill with responses of people being pushed in a wheelchair outside and sitting indoors. Again, the walking subjects provided more creative answers in both scenarios, whether the activity was done inside or out.

"While being outdoors has many cognitive benefits, walking appears to have a very specific benefit of improving creativity," said Oppezzo. "Incorporating physical activity into our lives is not only beneficial for our hearts but our brains as well. This research suggests an easy and productive way to weave it into certain work activities."

The research, which Oppezzo conducted with Daniel L. Schwartz of Stanford University, is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.

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