You have probably experienced this situation before. You were in need of inspiration or facing a difficult decision, perhaps spending hours pondering your options or discussing the situation with others to no avail. Eventually, you decided to go for a walk to clear your head. By the time your walk was over, you knew how to solve your problem.
The idea that walking helps you to think is such a widely held notion that we rarely bother to question it. Many great thinkers, authors and composers were also obsessive walkers – the likes of Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf and Beethoven reportedly developped many of their ideas while walking. Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” More recently, Steve Jobs was known for his walking meetings. I have even heard the claim that slower walkers are better thinkers because they spend longer walking, and that this is why older people are wiser. However, all of this evidence could easily be a case of correlation in the absence of causation. Maybe it is being outdoors that improves cognition, or maybe thinkers are less physically fatigued and thus more willing to walk. If nothing else, perhaps people simply enjoy walking while they think? Is there actually any scientific evidence that walking boosts your brain power?
A study published in the Journal Of Experimental Psychology aimed to test this idea by giving 176 Stanford University students various tests designed to assess creative thinking, such as asking them to list as many novel uses for a common object as possible. Some students walked for 5-16 minutes (depending on the subsequent task) before the test, while others sat on a wheelchair and were moved along the same path as the walkers. On average, the walkers did perform better – in the task mentioned above for example, walking was associated with an improvement in performance of 60%.
Other studies have attempted to identify physical changes in the brain associated with walking. One study looked at 65 sedentary adults, aged 59 to 80, who joined either a walking group or a stretching group. The walkers walked at their own pace for 40 minutes, three times a week. The researchers imaged the brain of the participants using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, once at the start of the study, then again after 6 months and after a year. They found that walking was associated with improved connectivity in certain brain regions and improved cognitive performance – particularly when it came to tasks like planning and multitasking, which tend to be hit particularly hard during ageing.
However, walking isn’t the only form of exercise to be associated with improved short and long-term cognitive function. Evidence suggests that exercise in general improves cognition and memory, improves plasticity by encouraging the formation of new neuronal connections, improves cerebral blood flow and metabolism, and protects against cognitive decline and dementia.
More research is still needed to tease out the mechanisms behind these relationships – conceivably even to the point where we can replicate the benefits of exercise through pharmacological means. For now, perhaps the important lesson is not that walking boosts your brain power, but that exercise needn’t be strenuous to have an impact on cerebral health. You don’t have to become a fitness fanatic to benefit from the substantial proposed anti-ageing benefits of exercise – just 20 minutes or so of walking a day is still significantly better than doing no exercise at all.
On the Link Between Great Thinking and Obsessive Walking: https://lithub.com/on-the-link-between-great-thinking-and-obsessive-walking/
Stanford study finds walking improves creativity: https://news.stanford.edu/2014/04/24/walking-vs-sitting-042414/
Attention, couch potatoes! Walking boosts brain connectivity, function: https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/205556