Creativity often seems like an elusive commodity to me-- some days I feel full of ideas and some days my brain shuts down. You probably know the feeling. But maybe creative energy isn't as fickle or as hard to catch as we thought. It could be waiting at the end of a short walk.
Researchers at Stanford University reported recently that taking a walk, either indoors on a treadmill, or outdoors in nature, produced a significant boost in creative inspiration over people who remained sitting while others walked. In tests ranging from 5 minutes to 16 minutes, walkers consistently outperformed sitters in measures of creativity.
"We're not saying that walking can turn you into Michelangelo, but it could help you at the beginning stages of creativity," says researcher Marily Oppezzo.
Biologically, it makes sense to me. Walking, even briefly, increases oxygen flow to the body and the brain. That wakes us up, making us more resourceful. Still, I wouldn't have guessed that a short walk could more than double my creative resourcefulness.
In the Stanford experiments, participants who walked on a treadmill or outside on a walkway both produced twice as many creative responses when tested compared to a person sitting down in a wheelchair. Where they walked made no difference; it was movement that mattered. Even when the wheelchair moved, pushed along the same routes as the walkers took, the sedentary rider showed no gains in creativity.
(I don't know how to explain the likes of British physicist Stephen Hawking, a wheelchair user since 1969 due to ALS and one of the most distinguished scientists of our time. Let's just concede a creative exception!)
"We already know that physical activity is important, and sitting too often is unhealthy" Oppezzo says. "This study is another justification for integrating bouts of physical activity into the day. We'd be healthier and maybe more innovative for it."
The Stanford findings hark back to studies done by Robert Thayer, a research psychologist at University of California, Santa Barbara. Thayer's research into energy levels, moods and movement revealed that walks as brief at 5-10 minutes could provide a measurable life in energy and mood. It's not so surprising that research now shows walks that elevate energy and mood also boost creative thinking.
I interviewed Thayer when I was writing Healing Walks for Hard Times. His findings prompted me to get up from my computer and take a brisk, 7-minute walk around a neighborhood loop every two hours while I was working. It was time enough to invigorate oxygen flow to my brain and to deliver a healthy stretch for muscles and mind. Maybe it even made me a more creative writer!
The creativity and walking research was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, April 2014. Read more about Robert Thayer's research in Healing Walks for Hard Times. Check my latest "Not the Retiring Type" column for insights on aging and the seven dimensions of wellness.