How Walking Makes You More Creative

A summer stroll inspires an investigation into how we can all be more creative

As I compose these words, I am walking through Lincoln Park near my home in Chicago. It is a beautiful summer day—clear sky, hint of a breeze, birds chirping, traffic fading as I stroll deeper into the park. If I concentrate on my steps, I notice my right hip flexors and quadriceps contracting in sequence to bring my right upper and lower leg forward. Simultaneously, my left gluteal muscles tighten as I balance momentarily on my left leg and extend my left hip.

My right heel contacts the ground first. As it does so, the muscles in my left calf fire to propel my left foot into the next stride. Meanwhile, the sole of my right foot rolls across the ground. As it does so, the natural arch spring formed by the tendons and muscles in the underside of my foot stretches and then contracts. My left leg swings forward, and the process repeats itself. 

Walking and Writing

Of course, all of this motion usually happens on its own, without my conscious awareness. My legs and feet wander forward, and, after thirty-seven-ish years of practice with this motion, my mind wanders, too. In addition to parts of this article, I wrote several scenes in my two most recent fiction novels during such walking-guided mind-wanderings. I also recently outlined most of a future novel over several Lincoln Park walks. And when I’m in the middle of an article or story, walking outside is my go-to strategy for combating writer’s block.

A woman walking in nature, one way to make you more creative

And I’m not alone. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and his students were known as peripatetics (“people who walk about”) because Aristotle often delivered lectures while walking around his school, the Lyceum. Author Charles Dickens claimed to walk thirty miles a day while composing his writing. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche took long walks as a remedy for debilitating spells of nausea and migraines. In doing so, he found they helped him think more clearly. “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” he declared. Naturalist Charles Darwin, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs and author Virginia Woolf are among the many other great thinkers who brainstormed while walking. Indeed, Jono Lineen, author of Perfect Motion: How Walking Makes Us Wiser, claims that walking and creativity developed in a symbiotic fashion for early humans. Walking on two legs freed our hands for other purposes and opened new realms of creative possibilities.

The Four Experiments

Scientific research further demonstrates the link between walking and creativity. A 2014 study authored by Marily Oppezzo of Stanford University provides the greatest evidence of this connection. Oppezzo and her colleagues designed four related experiments. In the first, participants completed a standard creativity task—first while sitting and then while walking on a treadmill. Of the forty-eight subjects, 81% improved on the creativity test while walking. The second experiment varied the order of physical activities (sit-then-walk, walk-sit or sit-sit). Again, subjects were more creative when walking after sitting, whereas no changes in creativity were observed when subjects sat during both creativity tasks. But when subjects walked first and then sat, their creativity scores were higher when sitting compared to subjects who sat during both tasks. In other words, walking boosted participants’ creativity even after they stopped moving.

In the third experiment, subjects walked outside and sat indoors. There were four conditions in this experiment: sit-walk, sit-sit, walk-sit and walk-walk. Once again, walking boosted creativity, and the effect persisted across the walk-sit group. Moreover, participants in the walk-walk group got slightly more creative after the second walk. At least in this experiment, the benefits of walking did not wane over time. Finally, the fourth experiment compared subjects walking indoors on a treadmill, walking outside, sitting inside or being pushed in a wheelchair outside. Again, walking increased creativity more than sitting. But being outdoors amplified the effect. Both outdoor walkers and wheelchair users were more creative than their indoor walking and sitting counterparts. In summary, Oppezzo’s experiments showed that, when it comes to creativity: 1) walking is better than sitting, 2) being outdoors adds an extra creative boost, and 3) creativity remains heightened even after you stop walking.

Additional Support

A 2022 meta-analysis supports Oppezzo’s findings. This paper assessed thirty-five studies that examined whether physical activity increases creative ideation. The analysis found a medium effect of activity on creativity. And chronic physical activity performed regularly for several days or weeks strengthened the effect. Like Oppezzo’s research, this analysis shows the benefits of physical activity (including walking) for creative thinking. And it reinforces the conclusion that creativity persists, and even increases further, when you are consistently active.

How Walking Makes You More Creative

But why does walking boost creativity? What is the mechanism that connects moving your legs to turning the gears of your mind? Both studies cited above observe a link from walking and physical activity to improved mood and reduced stress. This improvement in mood may be due to a variety of factors, including increases in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), cerebral blood flow, and the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. Physical activity has been shown to trigger all of these physiological responses. Additional research shows that positive mood increases divergent thinking and creativity.*

I can certainly identify with these observations. When I step outside for a walk, my thoughts seem to change from frustrated rumination to carefree pondering. My mind faces the same problem, but suddenly, I am breathing fresh air, I feel the sun on my face, I am distracted by new sights and sounds. My mind cannot fixate on one question the way it could when I was inside, staring at a blank page. I feel better, and my mind feels clearer. Outside, the problem-solving seems to go on in the background, while the stressed and overworked part of my mind takes a break.

Memory and Brain Activation

A sign reading "creativity"

Oppezzo also notes a link between walking and associative memory (the ability to remember the relationship between unrelated items). According to various studies, walking influences the expression of associative memory and relaxes the suppression of such memories. Unlocking associative memory allows the brain to synthesize different concepts into novel ideas.

Finally, a meta-analysis on fMRI activation data indicated that physical activity increased activation of the brain’s precuneus, frontoparietal networks, and default mode networks. These brain regions are associated with creative ideation performance. So while it is difficult to pinpoint the exact mechanism, there exist many plausible explanations for how walking makes you more creative.

Walking, Creativity and KineSophy

Here, we have another vital link between physical activity and cognitive performance. And once again, physical activity proves an important factor in unlocking our full capacities as human beings. Even if you’re not a writer or artist, even if you don’t consider yourself a creative person, a walk outside lets your brain explore new ideas and make novel connections. The activity of walking is fundamental to our existence as humans—physically, emotionally and mentally. It helped us develop into modern Homo sapiens and it still helps us create fresh developments as individuals and as a species.

*-Another study observed a link between negative emotions and increased artistic creativity. But if you can get the same creative results with positive instead of negative emotions, why wouldn’t you?