Aristotle did it for clarity of thought while he lectured his students. Virgin boss Richard Branson does this with his associates to help generate ideas. For the poet William Wordsworth, it was an essential daily habit that fired up his imagination.
For philosophers, poets, and chief executives alike, walking is a good way to stimulate creative thinking.
But is this some kind of placebo effect or does it really work?
Recently, scientists decided to find out.
These new findings have implications not just for creative types, but for all of us who want to retain our memories and thinking skills.
Increases Creativity by 60%
In 2014 researchers from Stanford University conducted four experiments involving 176 adults. Each was asked to carry out various tasks both indoors and outdoors, while sitting and while standing.
The researchers found that the volunteers’ creative output increased by an average of 60% when they were walking. This effect continued even after they sat down.
The study authors Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz concluded that “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”
In an interview, Dr. Oppezzo cautioned, “We’re not saying walking can turn you into Michelangelo, but it could help you at the beginning stages of creativity.”
The Stanford study did not explore the reasons why this effect takes place, but research presented at the American Physiological Society annual meeting in Chicago in April, 2017 takes us a step towards the answer.
Pounding the Sidewalk Boosts Blood Flow
Researchers from New Mexico Highlands University enrolled 12 healthy young adults. They either stood, walked at a steady pace, or ran while hooked up to heart monitors and ultrasound machines. The diameter of the carotid artery and blood velocity waves were measured to calculate the speed of blood flow to both sides of the brain.
The impact of feet hitting the ground sent pressure waves through the arteries. These waves synchronized with heart rate and walking stride to increase blood circulation in the brain.
While running had a greater impact, walking was still very effective, and when it comes to boosting blood flow to the brain, it’s better than cycling.
The lead author of the study was Dr. Earnest Greene, professor of engineering and biology. He says, “What is surprising is that it took so long for us to finally measure these obvious hydraulic effects on cerebral blood flow.
“There is an optimizing rhythm between brain blood flow and ambulating [walking]. Stride rates and their foot impacts are within the range of our normal health rates (about 120 beats per minute) when we are briskly moving along.”
Blood Flow to the Brain is Partly Under Your Control
Until recently it was believed that the blood supply to the brain was an involuntary activity that could not be influenced by exercise or changes in blood pressure. However previous research found that running was associated with backward flowing waves in the arteries and this helped to regulate the brain’s circulation.
The current study confirms this and shows that even a less vigorous activity like walking is effective.
Considering that nearly one in three cases of memory loss and decline in thinking ability is caused by vascular dementia, in which blood flow to the brain becomes limited, walking is an activity that should become an essential part of your everyday health regime.