We can all recite the many benefits of exercise: it jump-starts your mood while it protects you from heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, back pain, obesity, and certain kinds of diabetes, all while imparting a healthy glow to your appearance. And now scientists believe exercise may also boost your creativity, too.
For many years, going for a walk or engaging in other kinds of exercise has been the suggested course of action for anyone suffering from writer’s block or who just wanted to get their creativity flowing more freely. Here’s a surprising fact: Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, was famous within the company for his walking meetings. Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also been seen holding business meetings on foot. The list of artists who’ve used bodily movement to help overcome mental blocks includes authors Søren Kierkegaard, Henry James and Thomas Mann – in fact, Henry David Thoreau claimed that his thoughts began to flow the moment his legs began to move. Legendary composer Ludwig von Beethoven would start each day with a morning walk during which he would jot down the first rough notes of whatever musical idea inevitably entered his head before returning to his room and getting to work. Perhaps you even walk back and forth when pondering your own ideas.
Researchers have shown that regular exercise does improve creativity. A 2014 study by Stanford scientists found that creative thinking is enhanced during a walk and shortly afterwards, whether indoors or outdoors, compared to sitting. They theorized that physical activity brings your mind into the bodily experience and enables subconscious connections to arise. When you take a break from whatever you’re doing and go for a walk, a run, or a bike ride, your mind is freed up to cross fertilize so that when you return to what you were doing, you’re far better at connecting ideas that initially did not appear to be related.
Exercise can literally change your brain and get the creative juices flowing. When you work out, your body flushes out cortisol, the hormone that helps trigger the “fight or flight” response when you’re stressed and that also inhibits creativity and problem solving. Meanwhile, your pituitary gland releases endorphins, which can produce a sense of well being – the “runner’s high.” Exercise encourages the growth of new nerve cells and synapses by elevating your body’s levels of neurotrophins, a family of chemicals that fosters the growth of new nerve endings, and it increases the amount of oxygen in the blood to provide mental energy.
Many people attribute their exercise-induced creative bursts to the simple change in scenery, but while that certainly helps, the primary cause is the exercise itself. Almost every dimension of cognition improves from thirty minutes of aerobic exercise, and creativity is no exception. The specific fitness activity doesn’t matter, and the boost lasts for at least two hours afterward. However, as usual, there’s a catch: this effect occurs only if you’re already physically fit. For those who rarely exercise, the fatigue from aerobic activity counteracts the short-term benefits – one more reason to exercise on a regular basis!
While creativity payoffs don’t happen immediately when you first start in on a fitness program, in a little while you’ll start noticing that your concentration is improving, you can cope with stress better, and you’re sleeping more deeply and easily.
So, which activities should you do to boost your creativity? Here are a few things to consider.
- Pick a low-concentration exercise that allows your mind to wander, like walking, swimming, hiking or running (if you’re already fit). Team sports might not be the best choice because they require you to maintain high levels of focus and concentration.
- You should exercise for at least thirty minutes, but if you’re just starting out, even ten to fifteen minutes a few times a day will do the job. It’s easy to meet the guidelines for aerobic activity established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just make sure any activity is done at a moderate intensity for at least ten minutes at a time.
- Unless you and your partner plan to brainstorm while you work out, exercise alone.
- Bring a notepad or tape recorder (there’s one on your phone) so you can capture any amazing ideas that come up.
- Get to work right after you’re done, while your creative juices are still flowing. Unless it’s summer in Israel, then shower first 🙂
Every New Year, one in three people will embark on an exercise program – getting in shape is the most popular New Year’s resolution. The challenge is to maintain that enthusiasm month after month. By picking physical activities that you enjoy and that match your abilities, you’ll greatly increase the likelihood that you’ll stick with your regimen over the long haul. And any time you need a little motivation, just think of all those creative benefits.