You’re at your desk, trying to make progress on a project when that familiar urge to get up and walk to the vending machines – or anywhere other than your workstation – nags at you. What do you do? Should you give in? Will walking help or hurt your performance? Two competing research studies say “it depends.” It depends on the intensity of the activity and whether or not your project requires creativity.
To see if ordinary walking would boost creativity, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford University had people think up new ideas while sitting at a desk or walking on a treadmill at their own comfortable pace. People did better while walking than sitting. The researchers measured creativity with a well-known task called alternate uses. Joy Paul Guilford and his colleagues developed it years ago to assess divergent thinking, coming up with ideas that deviate from the ordinary. For example, how many ways can you think of to use a shoe (other than as footwear)? Take a moment to list out a few right now.
You may have thought of things like a doorstop, paperweight, planter, dog toy, bug smasher and so on. To see how well you did, we could count up the number of feasible uses you mentioned (fluency), the number of different types of uses (flexibility), and how uncommon your answers were (originality). The researchers combined these ingredients, and defined creative ideas as feasible uses that were uncommon (i.e., not listed by others in the study) – and they found that people came up with more creative ideas while walking than sitting. And here’s the bonus: The effects of walking carried over for a while; people who sat after walking did better than those who sat the whole time. So, you don’t have to do the work while walking; you may be able to think more creatively when you come back to your desk.
But, what about tasks that require convergent thinking, finding the one right answer to a problem rather than many different possibilities? One such task is remote associates where people have to think of the one word that forms a common pairing with three other words (e.g., given cottage, cake and Swiss, the one correct answer is cheese). Walking was no better, and in fact slightly worse than sitting. So consider the goal before bouncing up. Do you need divergent or convergent thinking?
And what about the intensity of the activity? Lorenza Colzato of Leiden University, Netherlands and colleagues Ayca Szapora, Justine Pannekoek, and Bernhard Hommel had people either rest or ride exercise bicycles while performing an alternate uses task. They found that, compared to resting, moderate cycling was slightly worse and intense cycling was significantly worse for flexibility on the task. It is hard to compare the levels of activity across the studies, but I suspect that even the moderate cyclers were putting out more effort than the casual walkers in the Stanford study. So the short term benefits of a walk may be limited to lower intensity, casual strolls. Consistent with the Stanford study, exercise diminished performance (at least for non-athletes) on the convergent remote associates task.
As for walking in my shoes, as opposed to your own, hopefully you’ll only do that figuratively, not literally. But it may help to take that type of mental walk too. Creative solutions are easier to come by if you tackle a problem from different perspectives, and walking a mile in your colleagues’ shoes might be just the ticket to help you do that. So if your task requires creative thought, take that (leisurely) physical, and possibly mental walk. But, if the walk is to get a high calorie treat, laden with fat and sugar, you may defeat the value of the walk. Healthy eating is as good for your brain as it is for your body – but that will have to be the focus of a different blog.
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.
Colzato, L. S., Szapora, A., Pannekoek, J. N., & Hommel, B. (2013). The impact of physical exercise on convergent and divergent thinking. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7
Copyright © Thomas Ward 2017