Feeling Stuck on a Task or Problem? Tons of Science Says You Should Take a Walk (Yes, Right Now)

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When you’re in a work rut and can’t get a task done, or your energy is fading but you’re coming up against a deadline, you might be tempted to try powering through. After all, time isn’t on your side, and there’s work you must get done (no matter how much you might rather curl up under your desk for a nap). Even if you choose to take a short break, it can be tough to shift your focus without just getting distracted—but getting on the move can help. A growing body of research suggests that walking has productivity benefits, offering a potential brain boost when you need it most.

Experts In This Article

Sure, taking a walk takes time, but far from being counterproductive to a work goal, that walk itself can be a tool for figuring out how to get stuff done more efficiently, thanks to the ways in which walking supports the brain. Indeed, walking can boost several elements of productivity, increasing creativity and concentration while also improving mood and reducing stress—meaning, you’re likely to return to your work post-walk feeling revived, refreshed, and better able to finally tick that job off your to-do list.

The productivity benefits of walking

If you’ve ever had a spark of inspiration on a hike or even a stroke of genius on a walk around the block, chances are, that occurrence wasn’t coincidental—and the walking had much to do with it. A 2014 study of 48 university students analyzing the power of walking on creative ideation found that the participants’ creative output increased by 60 percent, on average, when walking1 compared to sitting, and that their creativity was also elevated above a baseline for a short time after they stopped moving.

In particular, the researchers asked participants in one experiment to come up with possible alternative uses for common objects and found they were able to generate more novel ideas while they were walking, showing that if you have a problem to be solved, a walk might be the key to finding a few solutions.

While a separate experiment in the above study also found that walking on an indoor treadmill was as effective for creative ideation (being able to develop a novel analogy for a prompt) as walking outside at a bustling university, walking in nature may have additional productivity benefits. It’s thought that perceiving natural stimuli—free-flowing greenery and trees, delicate flowers, a vast blue sky—may help ideas to flow more readily. A 2012 study of 56 people who immersed themselves for four days in nature found that they performed better on a creative problem-solving task2 post-trip than they did pre-trip.

Walking outside in nature can also improve your ability to complete tasks requiring working memory3 (say, remembering a sequence of numbers or phrases in order), cognitive flexibility (being able to switch between thinking about two different concepts) and attentional control, or concentration, thanks to a concept known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART)4. “This concept suggests that exposure to nature can enhance our focus and concentration, restoring depleted attentional resources and ultimately improving our cognitive abilities,” says board-certified integrative medicine physician Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, MD, chief medical advisor at AllTrails. “Consider the outdoors as a natural brain booster and a resource you can access as soon as you step outside your door.”

“Consider the outdoors as a natural brain booster and a resource you can access as soon as you step outside your door.” —Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, MD, chief medical advisor at AllTrails

Don’t panic if you can’t get into a natural setting, though. Any kind of walking—even indoors, but preferably outdoors—may have cognitive upsides5, and particularly if you use the opportunity to disconnect from technology, like on a silent walk. “Walking can help alleviate decision fatigue, which is one of the things that really saps our productivity,” says Joyce Shulman, author of Walk Your Way to Better and founder and CEO of walking app and community 99 Walks. “We're living in a world where we're multitasking and moving from one thing to another. At its simplest, a walk just removes you from all that distraction, and by doing so, helps to restore your decision-making capacity and focus.”

Walking is so powerful because of a combination of factors, says Shulman. As well as increasing cerebral blood flow to provide more oxygen to the brain, walking makes use of cross-crawl movement (wherein opposite sides of the body move in sync), which may offer brain benefits, too. Not to mention, walking also stimulates the default mode network6, which is the system of brain regions that activates when you’re daydreaming (or not focused on a task) and can allow you to come up with innovative ideas. “Our brain goes into a sort of automatic mode,” Shulman explains. “It’s like walking provides just enough mental stimulation to free the rest of your brain to think creatively.”

On a psychological level, walking can also help you work better and more productively just by helping you feel better. A 2019 study of 62 adults found a 30-minute walk in an urban park significantly reduced ruminative thinking7, or the tendency to dwell on negative thoughts. In particular, the study showed that walking in nature helps us experience awe and lifts our mood, which can then stop us from overthinking about the same old thing, helping us to move on to new (and potentially more productive) thoughts.

If you need more convincing, walking has even been shown to improve mood8 in people who expected it to make them feel worse. Research has also found walking reduces anxiety and tension9, and even a short walk can be beneficial; a study from 2018 found just 10 minutes of brisk walking boosts mood10.

By a similar token, exposure to nature can lower stress and support positive emotions, too, and it also works fast. “Research has shown that even within the first five minutes of being outside, we can experience a positive improvement in our mood11,” says Dr. Bartlett Hackenmiller. It’s no wonder the combination of nature and walking12 has been shown to have such significant psychological upsides—and when paired with the cognitive benefits above, such a substantial positive impact on productivity, too.

How to get the best productivity boost from a walk outside

When it comes to getting the most from a walk, think about what you need and adapt your walk to suit, recommends Shulman. “Sometimes you need a walk in silence that lets your brain go wherever it's going to go,” she says. “Sometimes you would benefit most from setting an intention of a challenge or a problem that you want to sort out. And sometimes, you need to shake off the stress and build the energy, so maybe what you need is 20 minutes with your favorite playlist.”

While all walking is great, to get the maximum benefits, take a walk within or near green spaces, says work coach and productivity expert Sarah Clarke. “Walking in nature encourages you to use your five senses, [which can] activate the calming effects of your parasympathetic [aka “rest and digest”] nervous system,” she says. “It also encourages us to think and experience situations differently by literally reconnecting us with our bodies. This somatic connection makes it easier to access emotion, memories, feelings, and creativity.”

Remember: Your walk doesn’t need to be long, and the very act of getting up and doing it will change your physiological state of being, says Clarke. “When your nervous system is stressed and on high alert, cortisol and adrenaline floods your system, and blood is diverted away from your prefrontal cortex13, which is responsible for executive functioning, focus, and logical thinking,” she says. “Even a brisk walk around the block can reduce cortisol levels and turn on your parasympathetic nervous system instead.”

“Even a brisk walk around the block can reduce cortisol levels and turn on your parasympathetic nervous system.” —Sarah Clarke, productivity expert and work coach

The optimum time to walk is when the sun is at its peak to optimize your uptake of vitamin D, says Clarke, “but the best time is anytime [you want or need one],” she says. “You’ll never regret going for a walk.”

Shulman suggests building a walking habit that works for you. “Find a time in your day that works more often than not,” she recommends, or else become an opportunistic walker, and seek out chances to walk throughout the day… like whenever you’re stuck on a work task and could use a productivity boost.

Don’t underestimate the power of walking with other people, either. You can set a walking date with a friend, partner, or colleague, or take an IRL meeting while on a walk. You’ll increase your step count, your connection with the other person, and of course, your creativity and productivity, too.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Oppezzo, Marily, and Daniel L Schwartz. “Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking.” Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition vol. 40,4 (2014): 1142-52. doi:10.1037/a0036577
  2. Atchley, Ruth Ann et al. “Creativity in the wild: improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings.” PloS one vol. 7,12 (2012): e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051474
  3. Schertz, Kathryn E., and Marc G. Berman. ‘Understanding Nature and Its Cognitive Benefits’. Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 28, no. 5, SAGE Publications, Oct. 2019, pp. 496–502, https://doi.org10.1177/0963721419854100.
  4. Stevenson, Matt P et al. “Attention Restoration Theory II: a systematic review to clarify attention processes affected by exposure to natural environments.” Journal of toxicology and environmental health. Part B, Critical reviews vol. 21,4 (2018): 227-268. doi:10.1080/10937404.2018.1505571
  5. Mualem, Raed et al. “The Effect of Movement on Cognitive Performance.” Frontiers in public health vol. 6 100. 20 Apr. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpubh.2018.00100
  6. Festa, Felice et al. “Move Your Body, Boost Your Brain: The Positive Impact of Physical Activity on Cognition across All Age Groups.” Biomedicines vol. 11,6 1765. 20 Jun. 2023, doi:10.3390/biomedicines11061765
  7. Lopes, Sofia, et al. ‘Nature Can Get It out of Your Mind: The Rumination Reducing Effects of Contact with Nature and the Mediating Role of Awe and Mood’. Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 71, 2020, p. 101489, https://doi.org10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101489.
  8. Miller, Jeffrey Conrath, and Zlatan Krizan. “Walking facilitates positive affect (even when expecting the opposite).” Emotion (Washington, D.C.) vol. 16,5 (2016): 775-85. doi:10.1037/a0040270
  9. Murphy, Marie et al. “Accumulating brisk walking for fitness, cardiovascular risk, and psychological health.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise vol. 34,9 (2002): 1468-74. doi:10.1097/00005768-200209000-00011
  10. Edwards, Meghan K, and Paul D Loprinzi. “Experimental effects of brief, single bouts of walking and meditation on mood profile in young adults.” Health promotion perspectives vol. 8,3 171-178. 7 Jul. 2018, doi:10.15171/hpp.2018.23
  11. Neill, Calum, et al. ‘Nature Contact and Mood Benefits: Contact Duration and Mood Type’. The Journal of Positive Psychology, vol. 14, no. 6, Informa UK Limited, Nov. 2019, pp. 756–767, https://doi.org10.1080/17439760.2018.1557242.
  12. Ma, Jingni, et al. ‘Effectiveness of Nature-Based Walking Interventions in Improving Mental Health in Adults: A Systematic Review’. Current Psychology (New Brunswick, N.J.), Springer Science and Business Media LLC, Aug. 2023, https://doi.org10.1007/s12144-023-05112-z.
  13. Arnsten, Amy F T. “Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function.” Nature reviews. Neuroscience vol. 10,6 (2009): 410-22. doi:10.1038/nrn2648

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