The Athlete's Way

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Why Does Walking Stimulate Creative Thinking?

Researchers at Stanford have found that walking generates creative thinking.

Marily Oppezzo is on a mission to motivate people of every generation to optimize their creative potential by walking more and sitting less. Oppezzo and her colleague Daniel L. Schwartz, PhD from Stanford have found that going for a walk may be the most practical way to generate creative thinking anytime during the day.

I had a chance to speak with Marily Oppezzo on the phone for an hour this afternoon about her new study titled, “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking” which was published in April 2014 by the American Psychological Association.

Marily and I are both on a crusade to motivate people from all walks of life to be more physically active and to eat healthier foods. Within moments of conversing with Marily Oppezzo I felt like I was speaking with a kindred spirit. Our conversation covered so much ground that it is difficult to cover it all in a single Psychology Today blog post.

Hippocrates said famously, “Walking is the best medicine.” Throughout history, all types of creative thinkers have made walking a part of their daily routine. Please take some time to read the entire study from Stanford here. This new research supports the universal ability of physical activity to stimulate creative thinking in groundbreaking ways.

Marily Oppezzo’s research confirms what the ancient Greeks understood when they created the peripatetic schools and Steve Jobs learned by always holding important business meetings on a long walk.

While at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education, Marily Oppezzo, conducted four studies involving 176 people, mostly college students. Oppezzo and Schwartz found that people who walked instead of just sitting or being pushed in a wheelchair consistently gave more creative responses on tests commonly used to measure creative thinking.

For this study, creative thinking was defined as “novel yet appropriate ideas.” For example, you couldn’t use a tire as a pinky ring or use lighter fluid to make soup. But you could come up with alternate uses for common objects and original analogies to capture complex ideas. Most people who took a walk—as opposed to sitting still—tended to be more creative across the board.

"Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking," said Marily Oppezzo, PhD, currently of Santa Clara University. "With this study, we finally may be taking a step or two toward discovering why." Marily has a few theories about this which I’m hoping that she will share in a future Psychology Today guest blog post for The Athlete’s Way.

"Asking someone to take a 30-minute run to improve creativity at work would be an unpopular prescription for many people," Schwartz said in a press release. "We wanted to see if a simple walk might lead to more free-flowing thoughts and more creativity."

Marily Oppezzo added, "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."

Students who walked in another experiment doubled their number of novel responses compared with when they were sitting. The 40 students in this experiment were divided into three groups: One sat for two sets of tests but moved to separate rooms for each set; another sat and then walked on a treadmill; and one group walked outdoors along a predetermined path.

Conclusion: Walking Stimulates Creativity in Any Setting

To see if walking was the source of creative inspiration rather than being outdoors, another experiment with 40 participants compared responses of students walking outside or inside on a treadmill with the responses of students being pushed in a wheelchair outside and sitting inside.

Again, the students who walked, whether indoors or outside, came up with more creative responses than those either sitting inside or being pushed in a wheelchair outdoors. "While being outdoors has many cognitive benefits, walking appears to have a very specific benefit of improving creativity," said Oppezzo.

Marily, thank you for taking time out of your busy day to speak with me! I look forward to collaborating with you in the future!!

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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