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In this series, we look at different ways of getting the creative juices flowing. This time, we focus on physical exercise as a tool that promotes not just personal health but also intellectual capacity and the ability to solve problems creatively.
When it comes to being creative there’s no magic bullet, but exercise comes pretty close. We all know that exercise is good for you, but getting physical can also have an amazing effect on your mind and your mood. Sometimes it might seem like you were born without the “creative gene,” but nobody is born highly creative; creativity is a skill you have to develop through practice and hard work. And if we compare creativity to a muscle, then the inevitable result of sitting back and waiting for inspiration to strike is something akin to muscle atrophy.
A study in the journal “Frontiers in Human Neuroscience” claims that regular exercise is linked to improved divergent and convergent thinking, the two components of creative thinking. “Exercising on a regular basis may thus act as a cognitive enhancer promoting creativity in inexpensive and healthy ways,” says cognitive psychologist Professor Lorenza Colzato of Leiden University in the Netherlands. She goes on: “Anecdotal literature suggests that creative people sometimes use bodily movement to help overcome mental blocks and lack of inspiration.”
Getting active matters
A high percentage of the population leads a sedentary lifestyle, with the average person spending anywhere between 7 and a whopping 15 hours per day sitting down. We can easily spend all day working in front of the computer, drive or take public transport to and from home, eat dinner and spend another couple of hours in front of the TV, reading or playing video games. Given the negative health influences—cardiovascular disease, weight gain, diabetes, cancer, back and neck pain, increased anxiety, depression—it seems a crazy way to live.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Globally, about 23% of adults and 81% of school-going adolescents are not active enough.” The WHO also recommends that all adults aged 18-64 should be doing at least 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity each week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity throughout the week. So there’s every reason for us to get moving and increase our heart rates with some kind of workout.
Walk with me
Studies suggest that people tend to be more creative when walking than sitting down, and one such study by Stanford University researchers found that a person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent while walking. Earlier research already showed that regular aerobic exercise can boost and protect cognitive abilities, but the Stanford study found that just a simple walk—either indoors or outdoors—could temporarily improve certain types of thinking. The study also found that people remained in the creative zone even after they had sat back down shortly after a walk.
A follow-up study also showed how people who take part in “walking meetings” tend to be more creative and engaged. Business leaders and entrepreneurs from several Fortune 500 companies are known for holding meetings on foot, and their business practices outside of any conference rooms have yielded extraordinary achievements in many fields, arguably most prominently in that of personal technology.
So next time you find yourself struggling for an idea or wrestling with the solution to a problem, don’t sit back and wait for inspiration to strike, try going for a quick walk instead; it costs nothing, and the potential benefits can be huge. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said over a century ago, “Sit as little as possible. Do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement—in which the muscles do not also revel.” Authors such as Henry James and Thomas Mann also used to walk before starting to write, so why not take a leaf out of their book?
Inspired by nature
Although the Stanford study found that the act of walking itself, and not the environment, was the main factor in boosting creative inspiration, there are also many arguments for getting outdoors. Aerobic workouts like running in particular stimulate something called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which encourages the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus.
According to neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, author of “Healthy Brain, Happy Life,” the exercise-induced brain changes that may be responsible for improving memory might also improve the imagination, and there are reasons to believe a long run, for example, could help strengthen the same parts of the brain people use while being creative. Suzuki says: “In addition to its stress-reducing, mind-focusing, productivity-inducing, and memory-enhancing properties, there seems to be some evidence supporting the idea that exercise could help make us more creative.” Exercise has also been shown to help with creative problem-solving.
Creativity needs to be nurtured
Associate professor of education and of psychology Dr. Robert Keith Sawyer, believes that nobody is born creative, but everyone shares the cognitive processes needed to become creative. Sawyer says: “One myth is that if you’re a creative person it’s a trait and everything you touch turns to gold. That’s not the way creativity works. It’s not some magical trait. You have to work hard to be a more creative person. You have to be diligent.”
Which is to say, we have to work at it, to make time to develop creativity as a skill, to nurture it. Sawyer attributes the biggest difference between highly creative people and the rest of us simply to hard work and work habits. “Creative people work hard but they also work smart,” Sawyer says. “There is a certain way they structure their work habits. They structure their day so they alternate between hard work and time off. Researchers call it idle time.”
Idle time allows people to frame their problems differently, to look at them from new perspectives. Exercise allows us to focus on a physical task rather than on more cerebral work, and by stimulating our brains through physical activity, we’re opening ourselves up to new ideas and approaches.
Opening the creative window
Depending on when you need to get creative, you might work out in the morning, taking time out during lunch for a walk, run, or bike ride in order to keep the window for inspiration open as long as possible. Or if your goal is to harness your creativity as soon as you walk through the doors at work, getting your heart rate up early in the morning might give your brain a much needed boost. If you’re saving your creativity for more leisurely pursuits, then you might want to hit the gym after work so that you’re feeling inspired enough to tackle a do-it-yourself or arts project.
Ultimately we need to engage with our bodies, stimulating our brains through a good physical workout so that they remain in the creative zone afterward. Almost every cognitive process we are capable of improves from 30 minutes of daily exercise, and creativity is no exception. Studies have shown that the boost obtained from aerobic exercise can last for two hours or more; there is a prolonged positive effect largely independent of the kind of activity that was done. Bottom line: get moving—take a walk, bike to work, venture outside and go for a run. It’s the best recipe yet for getting the creative juices flowing.
If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.”
Author and journalist
Research shows that even a casual stroll is enough to get the creative juices flowing. People who exercise four times a week are able to think more creatively than those who lead a more sedentary lifestyle.
Take things a step further and give your creativity a boost by capitalizing on the runner’s high. Running is a great stress reliever and because it improves your mood, it will do wonders for your creativity and productivity.
A more extreme way to blow away the cobwebs, High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workouts are proven to boost memory and cognition by combining resistance and aerobic training. Like running, it also stimulates Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which encourages the growth of new brain cells.
According to The New York Times, weight-lifting strengthens the heart and improves blood flow to the brain, ultimately boosting creativity.
Clear your mind and open yourself up to new ideas and creative inspiration. Research shows that meditation changes the physical structure of the brain and increases frontal cortex activity (linked to focus, calm and concentration).