Just about every day, I take a break from whatever I am doing and head out to one of the many trails in Santa Barbara. This is southern California, so it is often warm and sunny. That alone makes most of these exercise breaks pleasant experiences. They’ve always seemed good in other ways, too. I usually don’t go hiking with the intent of thinking some more about whatever I’ve been working on, but often that’s what happens – I do end up thinking some more, and, more importantly, along different lines than I had been when I was sitting in front of my computer.
That’s just a personal anecdote. But now there is new, systematic research on the benefits of walking. A series of studies demonstrated that walking is not just good for your health, it also boosts your creativity.
There are various ways scientists assess creativity. One measure, the alternative uses test, asks you to generate as many uses as you can for common objects such as buttons, tires, or paper clips. One of the participants in the walking research, asked about a button, said that it could be used “as a doorknob for a dollhouse, an eye for a doll, a tiny strainer, to drop behind you to keep your path.” (I’m impressed.)
Another test of your creativity is your ability to generate analogies. One of the research participants who was asked for analogies to a robbed safe said “cheating off someone on a test.”
Participants trying to come up with different uses for common objects did better if they were walking on a treadmill than if they were sitting. In another study, participants who had been walking still continued to be more creative even for a while afterwards. There were studies of outdoor walking, too. That, too, was good for creativity. In fact, compared to people who walked on a treadmill inside or sat inside or were rolled outside in a wheelchair, those who walked outside came up with the most novel analogies and the highest quality analogies. Every single person who walked outside generated at least one high-quality analogy.
The authors discuss many possible explanations for their findings but, with the data they have, cannot definitively establish the best one(s). I like a quote that was underscored in a discussion of the research in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The quote was from Rebecca Solnit, in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. “Walking,” she said, “allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”
We know from research that single people exercise more than married people do. There is also suggestive evidence that they especially value solitude. What we don’t know, from any directly relevant research, is whether single people are more creative. The results of the walking studies suggest that they may be, especially during or just after the most active times of their days.
Dog walking image available from Shutterstock.