Walking Linked to More Creative Solutions than Sitting

Marily Oppezzo

Marily Oppezzo

Getting  moving can enable creative problem solving:  More novel, feasible, and appropriate ideas were generated by people when they walked than when they sat, reported Santa Clara University’s Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz of Stanford University.

Dan Schwartz

Dan Schwartz

The research team contrasted the impact of:
-Walking indoors or outdoors vs.
-Sitting or being pushed in a wheelchair indoors or outdoors.

More than 175 volunteers in 4 experiments completed several well-validated assessments of creative thinking:

  • JP Guilford

    JP Guilford

    Guilford’s Alternate Uses (GAU) for common objects, created by University of Southern California’s J. P. Guilford, to measure of cognitive flexibility and divergent thinking,

  • Mark Beeman

    Mark Beeman

    Barron’s Symbolic Equivalence Test (BSE), introduced by Frank Barron of University of California, Santa Cruz to calibrate the number of original insightful analogies generated for  complex ideas.

Frank Barron

Frank Barron


Oppezzo and Schwartz coded analogies according to a protocol developed by Northwestern’s Dedre Gentner to measure:

o   Level of detail (vague, precise),
o   Semantic proximity to the base statement (near, far),
o   Relational mapping to the base statement (low, high).

Dedre Gentner

Dedre Gentner

Walking increased 81% of participants’ divergent creativity on the Guilford’s Alternate Uses (GAU), and 23% of participants’ scores for convergent thinking measured by Compound Remote-Association test (CRA).
This trend significantly increased when volunteers walked outside:  These participants produced the most novel and highest quality analogies.

Walkers across 4 experiments generated an average of 60% more creative ideas than when seated.
In addition, people who walked were more talkative, and their greater verbal output was associated with more valid creative ideas.

Marc Berman

Marc Berman

The sequence of walking and idea generation affects the number and quality of creative suggestions.
Participants generated more valid creative solutions when they walked first then sat for the next problem-solving session.
In contrast, volunteers did not produce more valid creative solutions with more experience when they sat first then walked, or when they sat but never walked.

John Jonides

John Jonides

These effects may be explained by  Attention Restoration Theory (ART), described by University of Michigan’s Marc G. Berman, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan as two types of attention:

Stephen Kaplan

Stephen Kaplan

They suggested that walking in natural environments enables renewal of directed attention capacities and improves performances on difficult tasks when no longer walking.

In contrast, walking in an urban walk requires directed attention to avoid obstacles and dangerous situations, and provides less opportunity to restore directed attention.

Jin Fan

Jin Fan

After volunteers walked, they performed better on attentional function tasks measured by Jin Fan of Mount Sinai Medical School’s Attention Network Test.
Items evaluate:

  • Alerting,
  • Orienting,
  • Executive attention.

Benefits of walking on creative production were not related to mood or weather conditions during four different seasons.
Even viewing photographs of nature helped participants improve backwards digit-span compared with viewing photographs of urban environments, in Opezzo and Schwartz’s investigation.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

These studies validate Friedrich Nietzsche’s observation that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking and imply the value of walking in a natural setting before generating creative ideas.

Another implication is based on the finding that amount of talking  was associated with increased number and quality of creative ideas.
As a result, allocating sufficient time for extended discussion is likely to increase innovative output.

These findings suggest that access to walking places in natural settings is more than a pleasant amenity:  It enhances cognitive functioning and performance.

-*How effective have you found taking a brief walk outdoors before high-stakes discussions?

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