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Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking

2 min read

Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.

The core idea of this paper is simple: walking boosts creativity during and after the activity.

Nietzsche said, "All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking." He believed that walking in nature stimulated his thoughts. His habit of hiking in the Alps is well documented, and he credited his intellectual clarity and creativity to these walks.

Morgan Housel gets his best ideas while walking. In an interview, he said, “If I ever get some sort of writer’s block, or I’m just trying to think an article through, I go for walks. I go for two or three walks per day, and that’s where all of the writing happens, and I usually take notes when I walk.”

Current research supports these anecdotes. 4 studies in this paper show that walking helps generate ideas.

The first study showed that people performed 81% better on a creativity test for divergent thinking (Guildford’s alternate use, GAU) when walking on a treadmill compared to sitting.

In the second study, participants were divided into 3 groups: walk-sit, sit-sit, or sit-walk. The effects were the same as in experiment 1; walking led to higher scores on the GAU. This confirmed that walking improves creativity, not practice. They also found that this effect persisted even after participants sat down. Next time you have an important brainstorming session, walk immediately before.

The third study extended these findings to outdoor walking.

The fourth test used creative analogy generation to measure creativity. They also wanted to separate the effect of moving outdoors and walking. Participants were divided into 4 groups: sit inside, walk on treadmill inside, walk outside, or rolled outside in wheelchair. The results showed that walking outdoors led to the most novel and high-quality ideas.

The key takeaway is: to increase creativity, walk.

Previous studies show that aerobic activity improves creativity. However, it's ridiculous to ask someone to go for a run before writing. Asking them to walk is simpler.

Here’s how to apply this in your life, based on the paper's author:

  1. Pick a problem to brainstorm.
  2. Walk comfortably.
  3. Come up with as many ideas as possible.
  4. Record your ideas using transcription apps like Otter.
  5. Set a limit. If you're walking and no ideas come, try again later.

I think the most interesting part of the paper is the finding that walking improves creativity not due to environmental stimulation, but due to walking itself. Whether outdoors or on a treadmill, walking improved the generation of novel and appropriate ideas. Surprisingly, this effect extends to sitting after a walk.

There are many possible explanations for why walking improves creativity, but it's not concluded in this paper. However, anecdotes of people thinking best when walking are proven here.