Forget the old adage that the best way to solve a problem is to "sleep on it." A new study from researchers at Stanford University suggests taking a walk may actually yield better results.
"Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goal of increasing creativity," write authors Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz in their paper, published in this month's Journal of Experimental Psychology.
To test the influence of walking on creative thinking, Oppezzo and Schwartz divided study participants into four groups: Those who walked then sat; those who sat then walked; those who only sat; and those who walked indoors vs. outdoors. Participants were given two different tests, both widely accepted by the psychological community as valid measures of various aspects of creativity: Guilford's Alternate Uses test, or GAU (people were asked to come up with alternate uses for everyday objects in a short period of time), and the Compound Remote Association test, or CRA (people were given three unrelated words and asked to come up with a fourth word that connects with all of them. For example, upon hearing "cottage, Swiss and cake," a correct response would be "cheese.").
Overall, Oppezzo and Schwartz found, walking enhanced the performance on these creative tests, particularly the GAU: 81% of participants showed an improvement in test scores while taking a walk, regardless of whether they sat before or after. The researchers also noted that the effects of walking lingered: Even after returning to their seats, people who had taken a stroll showed a residual boost in test scores. "When there is a premium on generating new ideas in the workday, it should be beneficial to incorporate walks," they wrote.
How exactly does it work? Several theories have been posed, including the idea that walking and other forms of mild activity stimulate neural connectivity and plasticity in areas of the brain including the hippocampus, which is involved with learning and memory. Though much of the research has been done in labs, investigators such as Arthur Kramer, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believe their findings have broader application.
"There are a variety of molecular and cellular changes that occur in animal experiments that support the cognitive benefits we observe in humans," he says. In one of Kramer's studies, researchers found that taking three 40-minute walks a week improved memory and other aspects of cognitive thinking in older adults.
Meanwhile, Oppezzo and Schwartz say people may need even less than that: As little as 10 minutes of daily walking can boost creative skills, they say, although the exact mechanism remains a mystery. One explanation: Walking distracts the brain's pre-frontal cortex, which is typically responsible for the flow of information, thus allowing new or alternative ideas to sneak in, Schwartz suggests. Another possibility: Walking improves people's mood, and good moods lead people to explore more novel concepts, Schwartz says.
As for how the psychologists stumbled upon their findings in the first place, it was purely a matter of firsthand experience. "We had a habit of taking walks to discuss research ideas, mostly to get some physical activity amid a life of desk work," Schwartz says. "In a 'ta-da' moment, Dr. Oppezzo asked whether maybe we were also taking the walks to come up with good ideas. She was right."
For those who aren't already walking for exercise, less is more in the beginning to avoid aches and pains. Check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program, then start with just 10 or 15 minutes a day, two or three days a week. Dress in non-restrictive clothes and wear a good pair of sneakers so you feel comfortable. Need extra motivation? Join a walking club and use the buddy system to get yourself out the door. The American Heart Association offers tips for finding local walking groups and good walking routes in your area at mywalkingclub.org.
Though researchers are quick to point out that the creative benefits are subtle — don't expect to craft the next great American novel during your walk around the block — there is virtually no downside to using a few extra steps on your lunch break to make your afternoon in the office more productive. "There have been a tremendous number of common wisdom truths that turn out to be not so true," Schwartz says. "Here's a case where the common wisdom is true: Walking really does help."