05/01/2014 06:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Strolling My Way to a Novel


Recently, I read an article describing a study that confirmed something I'm quite certain I knew intuitively.

A Stanford University study indicated that walking on a treadmill at "an easy, self-selected pace" while facing a blank wall helped generate 60 percent more innovative ideas when the subjects were tested psychologically for creative thinking. These results were reported to have applied to almost every student tested.

The article also said, "Walking markedly improved people's ability to generate creative ideas, even when they sat down after the walk."

The volunteers who walked produced significantly more and subjectively better ideas than in their pre-exercise testing period.

These results were duplicated when the subjects walked outdoors, though the creativity index, while higher than before walking, was less than that measured while on a treadmill facing a blank wall. Walking may ignite creative thoughts, but doing so without distractions may enhance the process. One of the study's coordinators said, "It really seems that it's the walking that matters" in spurring creativity.

While this is not a shattering discovery, it lends an empirical component to what many creative people have known intuitively. I've talked with writers who claim to experience a surge in creative impulses while walking, bicycling, swimming laps, jogging, hiking or using an elliptical machine. These relatively non-strenuous exercises can certainly improve mood and may bring about subtle physiologic brain changes dampening down our minds' rational filters. In other words, certain brain functions may be altered, allowing almost dreamlike thoughts and images to surface and eventually achieve expression as a play, poem, novel or solution to business and life dilemmas. Exercise may simply open a window to stream-of-consciousness thinking and imagination.

While more research must be done before this is definite, empirical evidence suggests that exercise may enhance creative impulses and problem-solving for anyone.

I'll have to think about this, but meanwhile, as a writer, I'm going out for a stroll. Or maybe I'll hop onto a treadmill.

Mark Rubinstein, author of Mad Dog House, Love Gone Mad and The Foot Soldier