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May 4th, 2015

Trying to come up with some new ideas? Go for a walk. A new study out of Stanford University found that in addition to all the physical benefits of walking, it also improves creative thinking during and for a short time after the walk.

Walking can help lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and even ease symptoms of depression. So it’s not all that surprising that it provides other health benefits, as well. Contrary to the researchers initial prediction, though, it doesn’t matter whether you walk indoors on a treadmill or outdoors in the midst of nature. It just matters that you walk.

Where to Walk

"I thought walking outside would blow everything out of the water, but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results, which surprised me," Marily Oppezzo, Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology and co-author of the study, said.

The study involved 176 college students and other adults who were involved in four different experiments, each of which measures creative thinking. Participants completed the exercises in four different settings: walking on a treadmill in an empty room indoors, sitting in an empty room, walking outdoors, or sitting outdoors being pushed in a wheelchair.

Three of the four experiments were divergent thinking creativity tests, which involve exploring many possible solutions. Individuals had to think of as many different uses of a set of objects in a period of four minutes. Their solutions were only considered “novel” if no other member of the group produced it. An overwhelming majority of participants were more creative while walking, the study found. Their creative output increased by an average of 60% when they were walking rather than sitting.

The fourth experiment tested the individuals’ ability to come up with complex analogies in response to cue phrases. Participants sitting inside could produce at least one distinctive, novel analogy just 50% of the time, compared to those walking outside, who were able to produce at least one 100% of the time. Walking can boost creative thinking, but it didn’t seem to have an effect on tasks that require focused thinking.

When to Walk

Another experiment in the study involved a word-association test that is used to evaluate convergent thinking, or that which requires focused insight. The adults participated in a word-association task that tested their ability to generate words that could be used to create compound words. Those who were sitting while partaking in the experiment did slightly better than those who were walking.

"This isn't to say that every task at work should be done while simultaneously walking, but those that require a fresh perspective or new ideas would benefit from it," said Oppezzo.

A 2006 study published in The Journals of Gerontology found that walking just a few days a week increases brain volume in aging adults. This new research provides even more evidence that a healthy lifestyle can help not improve brain function, thereby decreasing the risk of dementia and other cognitive problems, but can also help improve your daily life by boosting creativity and providing opportunities for new ideas.

"We're not saying walking can turn you into Michelangelo," Oppezzo said. But it could help you at the beginning stages of creativity.

Next time you’re brainstorming, whether it’s a strategy for walk or a new chapter for your book, get up out of your chair, step back from the task at hand, and take a walk. It certainly can’t hurt.

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