Walking into a Connection with Creativity

It’s a reality that for me regular exercise is crucial to clearing the mental cobwebs, calling a halt to ruminative thoughts, and giving me an overall uplift in mood.  It also burns calories and means I don’t have to spend money buying bigger pants, but that’s a whole other post.  In fact, exercise (whether it’s running or just getting my @ss up and moving) has been a key factor in helping me re-connect to creativity.  A lot of research has been conducted to determine whether there is a connection between exercise and creativity, but there’s not necessarily a very clear-cut or definitive answer as to whether and how exercise impacts creativity.  Part of the reason for that is just down to how research is conducted and all the variables that go into that process.  Things like:

  • What type of exercise are the participants doing?   Vigorous?  Easy?  Something that requires skill?  Or something anyone can do?
  • Who are the participants and what are they like?  Are they all the same age, same physical fitness level?  What are their backgrounds?  Are they made up of different ages, different fitness levels or are they all somewhat similar?
  • How are they measuring creativity?  Are they only measuring divergent thinking?  Are they only looking at convergent thinking?  Or are both types of thinking being measured?  And what instruments or methods are they using to assess?

There are many more variables that could be considered for each study and while this level of detail is important for research, it makes it hard for those of us who like to see things in black and white (i.e., me) to get a definitive answer.  Imagine a multitude of studies, each one looking at perhaps different aspects of creativity and perhaps assessing how different types of exercise might impact it.  The possibilities and permutations are endless, so it’s not surprising there isn’t a one size fits all every time answer.  I wish I could be happy with that, but since I know it works for me I’m always hoping for some incontrovertible proof, dammit.

So, even though I wasn’t looking for it, I found a pretty dang compelling study, conducted by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz of Stanford University, that offers something more definitive.  As studies go, this one was very straightforward and focused on comparing divergent/convergent thinking performance between participants who were seated and those who were walking (with a few other variations thrown in and described further on).  The researchers used tests that are used frequently in this type of research; the Guilford Alternative Uses Test (GAU) and the Compound Remote-Association test (CRA).  GAU is considered a test of divergent thinking where participants are required to come up with as many alternate uses for an object as possible, while the CRA is considered a test of convergent thinking requiring participants to identify the common word associated with three seemingly disparate words.

A number of different experiments were conducted using different combinations/types of walking and sitting:

  • Sitters vs walkers
  • Sitting, then walking vs Sitting
  • Walking, then sitting vs Sitting
  • Walking outside
  • Walking inside on a treadmill

And spoiler alert, but hey I can’t NOT tell you how it all came out:  Oppezzo and Schwartz found that walking increases creativity, specifically divergent thinking (coming up with numerous new and novel ideas).  Even better, these benefits hold true regardless of whether you’re walking outside on a glorious sun-filled day or just walking on your treadmill in the basement.  And if you’re sitting around binge-watching your latest fave and then go walkabout or vice versa, it still works.  That’s really good news for those of us who spend the majority of our work week inside and often at a desk.  Now we know we have an easy option to jump start our creative juices by getting up and taking a walk around the building.

Next time you’re running low on ideas or seeking a creative jump start, remember this:  You don’t have to run a marathon, you don’t have to reach a state of utter exhaustion, in fact you don’t have to do anything special at all … you just have to get up and take a walk.


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