How Walking Enhances Cognitive Performance

Are long walks the secret to success?

Posted Jan 23, 2020

Photo by Tegan Mierle on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Tegan Mierle on Unsplash

Why do so many successful people (e.g. Steve Jobs, Jack Dorsey, Jeff Weiner) take long walks to get their best thinking done?

Let’s dive into the science of how walking improves cognitive performance.

The Science of How Walking Enhances Cognition

“The effects of outdoor stimulation and walking were separable. Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.” [1]

In 51 people, walking during lunchtime significantly increased how much they enjoyed their work in the afternoon. This, in turn, led to better concentration and energy levels. [2]

Blood flow to the brain, CBF (Cerebral Blood Flow), is increased when walking. Cerebral Blood Flow is crucial for cognitive performance.

“Results indicate that prolonged uninterrupted sitting in healthy desk workers reduces cerebral blood flow; however, this is offset when frequent short-duration walking breaks are incorporated.” [3]

Ambulation, walking around, was found to promote positive affect/emotions, in a study that was replicated three times, to control for confounding variables:

“Taken together, the experiments demonstrate that incidental ambulation systematically promotes positive affect regardless of the focus on such movement, and that it can override the effects of other emotionally relevant events such as boredom and dread. The findings hold key implications for understanding the role of movement in shaping affect as well as for clarifying the embodied nature of emotion.” [4]

In a study with 21 participants, anxiety and tension were reduced after a walking program. [5]

In a study on 48 healthy college-students, walking had a large effect on creativity:

“Walking substantially enhanced creativity by two different measures. For the three alternate uses studies, 81 percent, 88 percent, and 100 percent of participants were more creative walking than sitting.” [1]

Summary of scientifically proven benefits of walking:

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Improved mood
  • Enhanced (especially divergent) creativity
  • Increased concentration
  • Improved CBF
  • Increased energy levels

Walking Boosts Productivity

Listening to audiobooks and walking is my primary method of learning about the world, specifically business, history, and society.

To me, walking is anxiolytic, sparks curiosity, and potently improves working memory, focus, and both convergent and divergent creativity, in comparison with sitting at a desk.

I have a great time analyzing the systems, theories and concepts that audiobooks feed my mind with. I also accredit to walking my ability to synthesize seemingly separate concepts into a holistic picture. It is easy to understand what a leaf is if you know what a branch and a tree are.

But understanding what a tree and a branch are once is not sufficient for proper learning of what a leaf is. You need to have relevant concepts from long-term memory flowing in current mental association-chains, to be able to synthesize a holistic mental representation of how a new concept relates to all old ones that you’ve previously learned.

Walking is great for learning in my experience, it helps me focus while thinking about several things at once (promotes working memory).

Many of the tasks that you will want to use your high level of cognitive performance for, can be done while walking. Examples of cognitively demanding tasks I like to combine with walking are: thinking, talking, listening to an audiobook, mindfulness, reading an e-book, or answering emails on your phone.

References

[1] 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.

[3] Sophie E. Carter. et al. (2018). Regular walking breaks prevent the decline in cerebral blood flow associated with prolonged sitting. Journal of applied physiology.

[5] Murphy, Marie H. (2007). Accumulating brisk walking for fitness, cardiovascular risk, and psychological health. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.