You’re at your desk, trying to make progress on a project when that familiar urge to get up and walk to the vending machines – or anywhere other than your workstation – nags at you. What do you do? Should you give in? Will walking help or hurt your performance? Three recent research studies say “it depends.” It depends on whether or not your project requires creativity, the intensity of your physical exertion, and even whether you meander or walk in a straight line.
To see if casual walking would boost creativity, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford University had people think up new ideas while sitting at a desk or walking on a treadmill at their own comfortable pace. Their study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, showed that people did better while walking than sitting. The researchers measured creativity with a well-known task called Alternate Uses. Joy Paul Guilford and his colleagues developed it years ago to assess divergent thinking, coming up with ideas that deviate from the ordinary. For example, how many ways can you think of to use a shoe (other than as footwear)? Take a moment to list out a few right now.
You may have thought of things like a doorstop, paperweight, planter, dog toy, bug smasher and so on. To see how well you did, we could count up the number of feasible uses you mentioned (fluency), the number of different types of uses (flexibility), and how uncommon your answers were (originality). The Stanford researchers combined these ingredients, and defined creative ideas as feasible uses that were uncommon (i.e., not listed by others in the study) – and they found that people came up with more creative ideas while walking than sitting. And here’s the bonus: The effects of walking carried over for a while; people who sat after walking did better than those who sat the whole time. So, you don’t have to do the work while walking; you may be able to think more creatively when you come back to your desk.
But, what about tasks that require convergent thinking, finding the one right answer to a problem rather than many different possibilities? One such task is Remote Associates where people have to think of the one word that forms a common pairing with three other words (e.g., given cottage, cake and Swiss, the one correct answer is cheese – cottage cheese, cheese cake and Swiss cheese). Walking was no better, and in fact slightly worse than sitting on this convergent task. So consider the goal before bouncing up. Do you need divergent or convergent thinking?
And what about the intensity of the activity? Lorenza Colzato of Leiden University, Netherlands and colleagues Ayca Szapora, Justine Pannekoek, and Bernhard Hommel had people either rest or ride exercise bicycles while performing an alternate uses task. Their study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that, compared to resting, moderate cycling was slightly worse and intense cycling was significantly worse for flexibility on the task. It is hard to compare the levels of activity across the studies, but it seems likely that even the moderate cyclers were putting out more effort than the casual walkers in the Stanford study. So the short term benefits of a walk may be limited to lower intensity, casual strolls.
And finally, what about the style of walking? Chun-Yu Kuo and Yei-Yu Yeh published a study in Frontiers in Psychology in which they had undergraduate students from the National Taiwan University contemplate alternate uses for chopsticks while they walked the perimeter of a 400 by 500 meter rectangular area or wandered freely within the area. They all then had 10 minutes to list out uses, and the free walking group outperformed the rectangle walkers on fluency, flexibility and originality. It is interesting that the different paths metaphorically link to free flowing versus rigid and linear thinking. As a final twist, a group of students who generated random paths with a laser pointer but didn’t walk them, and a group that followed those paths instead of generating their own did not show the same benefits as the free-walkers. One idea the researchers proposed was that an integration of the conceptual aspect of generating the free form path and the sensorimotor experience of moving along it is needed to benefit divergent thinking.
So if your task requires creative thought, then take that leisurely, meandering and self-generated walk. But, if the walk is to get a high calorie treat, laden with fat and sugar, you may undermine the value of the walk. Healthy eating is as good for your brain as it is for your body – but that will have to await another blog.
Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on My Personal Website
Copyright © Thomas Ward 2017
Colzato, L. S., Szapora, A., Pannekoek, J. N., & Hommel, B. (2013). The impact of physical exercise on convergent and divergent thinking. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7
Kuo, C., & Yeh, Y. (2016). Sensorimotor-conceptual integration in free walking enhances divergent thinking for young and older adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 7
Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), 1142-1152.