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

Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L.  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.

Four experiments demonstrate that walking boosts creative ideation in real time and shortly after:

In Experiment 1, while seated and then when walking on a treadmill, adults completed Guilford’s alternate uses (GAU) test of creative divergent thinking and the compound remote associates (CRA) test of convergent thinking. Walking increased 81% of participants’ creativity on the GAU, but only increased 23% of participants’ scores for the CRA.

In Experiment 2, participants completed the GAU when seated and then walking, when walking and then seated, or when seated twice. Again, walking led to higher GAU scores. Moreover, when seated after walking, participants exhibited a residual creative boost. Experiment 3 generalized the prior effects to outdoor walking.

Experiment 4 tested the effect of walking on creative analogy generation. Participants sat inside, walked on a treadmill inside, walked outside, or were rolled outside in a wheelchair. Walking outside produced the most novel and highest quality analogies. 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.

General Discussion

Walking is an easy-to-implement strategy to increase appropriate novel idea generation. When there is a premium on generating new ideas in the workday, it should be beneficial to incorporate walks. In addition to providing performance benefits, it would address concerns regarding the physiological effects of inactivity (Hamilton, Healy, Dunstan, Zderic, & Owen, 2008;. Hamilton, Hamilton, & Zderic, 2007).

While schools are cutting back on physical education in favor of seated academics, the neglect of the body in favor of the mind ignores their tight interdependence, as demonstrated here. Theoretically, we can eliminate several explanations for the results.

First, the effect cannot be due to real-time competition between physical and mental activity for shared cognitive re- sources, although this does occur. For instance, one study showed a dual-task cost for 60-year-olds walking a difficult obstacle course while performing a word-recall task (Li et al., 2001). Here, when people sat down after walking, they continued to be more creative even though they no longer needed to attend to walking.

Second, the residual effects also block an embodied account, because when seated after walking, there were no longer moving legs to semantically prime cognition.

Third, the causal pathway is likely to differ from the mechanisms that translate exercise into global protective factors for cognition. Walking was selectively beneficial for divergent thinking, not convergent thinking. Finally, the effect is not due to the external flow of stimulation that normally occurs with walking. Walking on a treadmill facing a blank wall improved creativity.

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.