How to use exercise to boost your creativity
Updated: Sep 19, 2019
There are many proven benefits of exercise. Aside from the well-known physical health benefits, it’s a proven mood booster. Imagine the benefits that an improved mood can have on other things? Imagine – can we in fact exercise to make us more creative?
Yes in fact, we can. I recently watched Wendy Suzuki’s TED talk about the benefits of exercise for your brain function. Having recently become a fitness instructor and gone back to school to learn about physiology, anatomy and the manifold impacts of exercise on your body AND mind, this was not news to me, but it got me thinking… if exercise makes you happy thanks to endorphins, as well as improving your cognitive function and ability to focus and make decisions, the combination of those things could in theory, be creative magic in the making.
Although happiness isn’t a prerequisite for creativity (in fact often the opposite is more effective), it frees the mind of burden, anxiety or fear, and makes problem solving a positive and more free-flowing experience.
Feeling good ‘induces flow states that are foundational to creative work’, writes Daniel Kunitz in an article for Artsy. He points out that whilst the gym habits of 15th century painters are not particularly well documented (shame), a deeper look into their work and notes brings to light references to physical movement and exercise as a way of getting into a creative rhythm: “for the Dutch artist Guido van der Werve who composes the music for his films, and competes in triathlons, the act of running (or biking or swimming) is especially helpful for orchestration. ‘Many days I sit behind my piano trying to compose for a lot of different instruments at once, it’s quite difficult because music is time-based, so you can’t really sit down and look at it—it disappears. Going for a run makes me sharper, it helps me to stay focused, to concentrate, and also you create endorphins, which makes you feel better.’ Los Angeles-based artist Cassils describes their various exercise regimes, from lifting weights to kickboxing, as ‘moving meditation’.”
The real benefit of exercise upon creative aptitude is in the sharp focus provided by exercise and the high level of energy you have afterwards, making you feel like you HAVE to DO SOMETHING. You are driven to action and you want to create, to find solutions to issues and to infect others with your energy, therefore perhaps solving big problems, not just craft projects.
So for those seeking creativity in more humble, everyday situations such as office spaces, walking meetings and stand-up meetings have become increasingly popular over the last few years, as have the trial of treadmills and static bikes in place of desk chairs. These seemingly gimmicky additions do work…
Studies at Stanford and Leiden University in The Netherlands have identified the improvements of simply walking to divergent thinking (a measure of a person’s creative ability for open-ended thinking). A Stanford experiment back in 2013 ran an experiment to understand the relationship between low effort exercise and creativity. They used a divergent thinking task (how many uses can you think of for one everyday object, for example a paperclip, or a pen), and found that someone walking indoors – on a treadmill in a room facing a blank wall – or walking outdoors in the fresh air produced twice as many creative responses compared to a person sitting down. The study also found that creative juices continued to flow even when a person sat back down shortly after a walk.
Of course, there are factors affecting the impact on specific individuals (latent fitness and genetics to name a few), but the general consensus in scientific texts is that aerobic exercise is good for your long term brain cognition and thinking power, and an increase in movement has an immediate impact on your idea generation abilities.
So if creativity is the key to the future, this association with exercise raises some thoughts:
For the office space:
We spend a lot of time at desks, in offices, not moving, but we need to nurture a workforce of the future who can generate ideas and solve problems. What more is there beyond replacing desk chairs with treadmills as a way to do this? It feels like the equivalent of planting a tree to reduce carbon footprint: lazy and a bit insincere.
What about the work ethics and attitude - is being outside encouraged?
Replace sofas with treadmills!?
Mark out creative walking lanes around the building!
For the individual:
Walk or bike some of the distance to work, if you can
And schedule your day’s tasks around those bursts of movement and activity, so you’re giving yourself the maximum creative kick-start when you need it.
For the exercise professional / team builder:
Sell the creative benefits of your workouts! Get fit and get creative. Look after your future self - in more ways than you thought possible ;)
Places like the ‘Little Yoga House’ in Austin, Texas use yoga as a way of teaching kids about their connection between their emotions and their bodies. How can you help connect the next generation with their creative abilities?
There are many ways of being more creative and igniting it when it’s faded away or feels lost or unachievable, and this is just one of them. But… keep your eyes peeled for a creative fitness class near you soon…