It’s pretty easy to get caught up in a creative endeavor, wondering what comes next. And while there are many ways to get your creative juices flowing — like drinking alcohol — searching for a way may cause you to overlook the most simple of them all: going for a walk.

“Asking someone to take a 30-minute run to improve creativity at work would be an unpopular prescription for many people,” said Dr. Daniel Schwartz, from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, in a press release. “We wanted to see if a simple walk might lead to more free-flowing thoughts and more creativity.” And indeed, it did.

The researchers studied a total of 176 people (a majority of them students) on a couple of exercises while they either sat down, walked, ran, or were pushed in a wheelchair — the experiments combined these activities as well. The two exercises have been time-tested for their ability to weed out creativity and convergent thinking. The first one, called the Guilford’s Alternate Uses (GAU) test measures a person’s ability to be creative with a single word — usually an object. If they’re able to take that object and find novel uses for it, then their creativity level rises. The second test, the Compound Remote Associates (CRA), involves finding one word that relates to three given words (convergent thinking). An example of this is being able to connect the words “cottage, swiss, and cake,” to the word “cheese.”    

For the first experiment, 48 participants were given these tests while spending some time sitting in a room, and then walking on a treadmill. At the end, 81 percent had shown more creativity while walking during the GAU, however, when it came to those who took the CRA, only 23 percent improved. This suggests that walking improved the “free-flowing, divergent thinking” involved in the creative thought process more than the “tight constraint satisfaction of CRA,” which is more involved with measuring insight.

Subsequent tests with new participants turned up similar results. In one of them, participants either sat then walked; stayed walking, or stayed sitting — the researchers found that sitting the whole time had the worst results, while sitting after a brief stint of walking carried over some creative benefits. Meanwhile, other participants walked on their university’s pathways, on a treadmill outside; were walked while sitting in a wheelchair outside, or were kept sitting inside. Across the board, participants who walked showed better creative skills, even when given a new test measuring their ability to come up with analogies.

“Walking had a large effect on creativity,” the researchers wrote. “Most of the participants benefited from walking compared to sitting, and the average increase in creative output was around 60 [percent]. When walking, people also generated more uses, good and bad. Simply talking more, however, was not the sole mechanism for increased activity. When walking, people generated more uses, and more of those uses were novel and appropriate. “

Studies from Northwestern University have shown that people who separate themselves from a problem are more likely to have “eureka” moments — anyone thinking creatively would probably describe a the coming of a new idea in this way. So, in a sense, walking spurs more of these moments, as visual distractions and the act of walking tend to give a person a break from whatever problem it is they’re trying to solve. The researchers also noted that physical activity promotes mental health. Together, the findings should encourage anyone trying to improve creativity to take a walk or two, especially as spring moves toward the summer.

Source: Oppezzo M, Schwartz D. Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking. Journal of Experimental Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 2014.