Exercise And Creativity: 6 Surprising Ways They Complement Each Other

Exercise and creativity are interlinked. Regular exercise can prompt more creative thinking. We explore how.

A few years ago, I was struggling with a bad case of writer’s block. I couldn’t finish a troublesome book chapter. So, I started going for a run in the mornings before sitting down to write. Running increased my heart rate and after a few days of cultivating this creative habit, I found it much easier to sit down and face the demands of the blank page. It turns out my experiences aren’t unique.

Since then, I’ve relied on exercises like yoga, running and weightlifting for years to blow off stress, and it’s helped my writing in odd and unexpected way for achieving my writing goal.

Does Exercise Spark Creativity?

Several scientific papers have found a link between exercise and creative thinking, including a paper published in Scientific Reports. After reviewing their findings, the authors argued for “ argued for shared variance between bodily movement and creativity”

The famous essayist David Sedaris walks for several hours daily, picking up trash in his home town of West Sussex. These walks often give him time to reflect on his writings. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is an avid runner and swimmer and wrote an entire book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running on how these endurance sports inform his creative process.

Stephen Pressfield is another well-known writer who exercises regularly. In The War of Art, he describes his early morning gym sessions. The creative American dance choreographer Twyla Tharp also keeps to a strict early morning routine. She hits the gym at 05.30 before starting a day of creative work.

How does exercise increase creativity?

According to researchers, exercise increases creativity by encouraging convergent and divergent thinking. The former describes deducing a solution based on logic and reason. The latter describes lateral thinking or generating unique solutions and ideas to challenges.

Exercise triggers feel-good endorphins. Thirty minutes of cardio or strength training gets your heart rate up and blood flowing. It also offers a break from the confines of digital tools. Your subconscious can continue working on a creative problem or project even while you’re exercising (divergent thinking). Then, when it’s time to write, draw or engage in creative work, you should have more ideas and energy. Or you may spot an obvious solution that you previously overlooked (convergent thinking).

The benefits of exercise, such as running, walking, yoga and other low-impact pursuits, on creativity, can last for up to two hours. Below, we go into more detail, explaining six different ways exercise will help you find better ideas and improve creative thinking.

1. Exercise Helps You Focus

Exercise and creativity: Surprising ways they complement each other

Meditation is scientifically proven to aid concentration and even improve our memory. Regular meditators can focus on a task and are less prone to mood swings.

Physical exercises, like yoga or running, are a lot like meditation or journaling. Running demands turning up several times a week in your trainers, and committing to a difficult task for an extended period. Similarly, most good yoga sessions end with a brief meditation practice or Savasana.

A runner or yoga practitioner focuses on the breath at length, just as an aspiring writer focuses on the words in front of them. The athlete knows one bad training session doesn’t mean they are unfit or unprepared for a race. The next day, they simply try again. The meditator acknowledges day-to-day setbacks and small accomplishments and accepts both.

If you’re a writer who enjoys regular exercise or meditates, getting paid to write short stories, articles, blog posts or even a book can feel more achievable. Apply lessons learnt on the track or the cushion, and break down a complicated writing project into a series of small milestones.

Then, focus on achieving small personal victories, overcoming minor setbacks and making slow but steady progress towards your writing goal.

2. Aerobic Exercise Gives Your Brain a Break

If you’re a desk monkey like me, you spend up to eight hours a day looking at a screen in your office, to say nothing of the time spent on a phone or watching television?

Us all this screen rotting our brains and killing our concentration? Our eyes and minds crave a reprieve from the harsh glare of screens, monitors and smartphones.

When you sit down to self-edit your work, you’ll see the hook for an article, the typo on page three and the plot twist a tired, overworked mind missed an hour ago.

3. It Teaches Persistence

Most modern prolific writers are nothing like Ernest Hemingway or Scott F. Fitzgerald. They almost never write drunk and edit sober. Instead, they’re usually healthy, fit and follow a strong work ethic.

Take one of Japan’s greatest novelists: Haruki Murakami Murakami. He’s the author of books like Kafka on the Shore and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Murakami also a dedicated athlete who runs at least one marathon a year. When Murakami writes a novel, he also runs or swims for at least an hour a day. He describes his approach to bodily movement in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

“Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree”.

When I’m in pain, I reflect on that sentence. I force myself to run a little farther, a little harder. And then I try to write a while longer and go deeper. If you’d like to learn more about this writer, we’ve profiled Haruki Murakami’s best books.

4. It’s Ideal for Combating Stress

Steven Pressfield writes in Turning Pro when the professional writer is in pain, he or she takes “two aspirin and keeps on trucking.”

Even Pressfield would agree it’s easier to write when you’re not in pain. Running helps you lose weight, fight disease and get a better night’s sleep. When you’re are physically and mentally healthier, you’re better able to concentrate on writing.

If good health isn’t enough of a reason to run, anyone who trains several times a week experiences the runner’s high. The natural feel-good endorphins releases carry over after you’ve finished, into your work.

5. Exercise Improves Your Mood

Stress is one thing, but what if you’re in a bad mood or even struggling with depression? Well, various scientific studies have found that physical exercise, like running or yoga, can easily improve your mood. The authors of that study concluded:

These results suggest that mood and creativity were improved by physical exercise independently of each other.

As a runner, I can testify to the runner’s high I sometimes experience while out for a few miles. When I return to my desk, it’s usually easier to write, and I don’t feel so sluggish or down in the dumps.

6. Exercise Encourages Clear Thinking

A 2013 paper published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal reported those who workout regularly perform better in creativity tests compared to their peers. The authors wrote,

…our observations suggest that more exercise may enhance convergent thinking, at least in individuals with a higher degree of physical fitness.

Regular workouts prompted better convergent and divergent thinking. The former describes giving the correct answers to standard questions, while the latter describes exploring many solutions to a problem. Think of the form as a useful skill for self-editing while the latter applies to a free writing session.

Exercise and Creativity The Final Word

Runners preparing for a five- or ten-mile race typically train two to three times a week, just as aspiring writers begin by writing several sentences every other day. Marathon runners train longer and harder; they run four or five times a week, just as serious writers must create every day.

Swap running for any aerobic activity. Regular exercisers of all types can experience the benefits listed above. You can swim, cycle, box, golf, row, ski, dance, play tennis or squash, hike or even cut the grass and get those creative juices flowing.

Whatever you like to write, physical exercise can help you overcome a lack of creativity. As a creative person, when you’re fit and healthy, you’ll find it easier to turn up every day in front of the blank page and work.

Physical activity builds the inner discipline and cultivates the focus you need to work on difficult writing projects for extended periods. And because you’re capable of hitting milestones on the track (or on the road), you will feel more confident about hitting them on the page too.

Your Creative Exercise

The next time you face a creative block, don’t sit in front of your computer screen or a first draft. Instead, go for a long walk. Bring a dictaphone with you or your phone. Record ideas as they arise and then use these as part of your current writing project.

If you like this article, check out our interview with author and long-distance runner Alex Hutchinson about the link between exercise and creativity.

How does movement help creativity?

Movement makes you feel good. When you move for thirty minutes via strength training or cardio, your heart rate increases and your blood starts flowing. It’s a natural, healthy break from digital tools and let your subconscious work on a creative problem or project. Then, when it’s time to be creative, you will have more ideas.

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  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.