Surprising Benefits of Taking Your Creative Mind for a Walk

Disrupting your routine with a walk can be the catalyst for creation.

Posted Dec 28, 2018

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According to a Gallup poll, eight in ten Americans feel frequently stressed. The stress of work, finances, the political climate, even family life can prevent you from generating solutions or novel ideas when you need them. Maybe you’ve lost the ability to enjoy the wonder that comes with “going for a walk,” or maybe you’ve grown way too accustomed to prolonged sitting.

But here’s the real problem: You could be forfeiting one of the greatest tools for giving you a creative advantage at the office or studio. If you ever feel stymied by a challenge at work that requires a new approach, or if you’re feeling sluggish and unable to get through the day’s tasks with a refreshing angle, well, taking the right kind of break just might help you — and your brain — work better.

Numerous studies conducted in the past few years corroborate what Nietzsche and a slew of innovators in the arts, sciences, and business have sensed: Walking boosts our creativity. The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”

Here’s the thing: Not all movement and not all walks are equal in their effects.

Stepping out into the world increases our creative abilities.

What’s your typical physical posture when working and trying to come up with fresh ideas? Sitting? Maybe that’s not such a good idea for your creative brain — or your health. Sitting is harmful to our overall health. Research conducted by Annals of Internal Medicine reveals that sitting for too long, too often puts us at risk of heart disease. That’s one of the many reasons I advocate that you not just learn to work well during the day, but that you also train yourself to break better.

The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS) reveals that Americans spend 87 percent of their time indoors. Being inside, you’re more prone to stagnation, the antithesis to energy. Without energy, you can’t wonder or create. This is why disrupting your routine with a walk can be the catalyst for creation.

But the consistency of walking is almost as crucial as the type of walking. A Stanford University study found a direct correlation between walking and generating creative ideas. Participants were more than 81 percent more creative when walking as opposed to sitting. According to the study, walking outside — versus on a treadmill — produces the most novel and highest-quality analogies in participants who walked and then sat down to do creative work. This means the factors surrounding our walks impact the effects of that walk.

Just in stepping outside, you are stepping outside of yourself and your comfort zone, which is necessary if you want to develop a new sense of wonder. You can walk through a tree-filled neighborhood. You can walk through a park and listen to the birds singing to each other from different branches. Even when you walk down a busy street, you can't help but get distracted by the sweet, cinnamon smells wafting up from the food cart, or the child on the street who’s pointing to a building or bird you hadn’t noticed before.

Although our brains work harder to process in different environments, walking outside forces our brains to churn out new ideas every time we take in new sights, new sounds, new smells, new flavors. Add in physical movement, which is scientifically proven to improve our memories and strengthen our cognitive abilities.

Engaging in aerobic workouts, like running or cycling or swimming, can also stimulate the Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which can produce new brain cells, improve brain plasticity, and regulate energy metabolism and prevent exhaustion. The more energy we expend, the more energy we receive, both physically and mentally.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “exercise your creativity,” which refers to the brain as muscle. Our creative mindset is triggered by physical movement, which is exactly why walking — whether with your dog, with a friend, or alone — is beneficial to creative thinking.

Seek wonder in new environments.

Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” is considered a common form of relaxation and medicine in Japan. It was developed in 1982, and science proves that being in the forest, walking amongst the trees, lowers your stress levels and relaxes you.

Imagine it — walking in the fresh air, staring up at the sky-high trees, listening to the sounds of the water floating down the mountain. There’s something tranquil and childlike about being in the vastness of nature.

The effects are so powerful that Shinrin-yoku is now a government-endorsed policy in Japan. The practice begins with using all five senses to fully engage in it. But you don’t have to live near a forest to receive the psychological benefits of Shinrin-yoku. Research shows that “immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50 percent in a group of naive hikers. Our results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting.”

Connect body and mind with purpose.

Beginning your journey to wonder and better daily creative problem-solving starts with mindfulness. Walking with a purpose is more beneficial than walking in frustration, anger, or to simply reach a 10,000-step goal.

Pay attention to your day-to-day habits. Do you spend four hours of the day sitting at the same desk, staring at the same computer, day after day? Do you get into your car, drive to the gym, and return home, without ever stepping into the sun? If you’re in a creative rut, if you’re struggling to find a solution to a work problem, you should probably look outside the internet and outside yourself.

To actually get to a state of wonder, it’s important to walk not just for exercise, but for immersion in a new experience. Rather than trying to reach a fitness goal, what if you try and engage more closely with your surroundings? Turn off your phone and give yourself the chance to be present in the world — to hear conversations and songs, to notice the way people walk, the way the sun creates a rainbow in the puddle.

As part of his daily writing routine, Kurt Vonnegut would take a break mid-morning from his office to walk, then swim, and, eventually, return to work. I would argue that this habit wasn’t just a habit, but an intentional, necessary element of his creative process.

Mindful movement (as opposed to mindless movement) is a catalyst for wonder. So yes, keep walking for your health, but also walk for new ideas.