How Exercise Makes You More Creative


Augustus ButeraFrom Health magazine

A few years ago, I decided to write a novel—pretty much sheer craziness, since Id never completed anything longer than a magazine article. Yet not far into the process, a curious thing started happening. During morning runs, ideas for the book began appearing in my mind like Internet pop-ups. I quickly became Gretel in sneakers, scooping up metaphors, snippets of dialogue, and even fully hatched plot twists, which I couldnt wait to weave into my narrative the minute I returned to my computer.

Just six months later, I finished and sold my first novel, Little Pink Slips.

We all can recite the multiple benefits of exercise. It jump-starts good moods and protects us from heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, back pain, obesity, and certain kinds of diabetes. (Oh, and not to mention the uplifting effect it has on our butts.) But that its also an express lane to creativity—who knew? Whether your goal is to redecorate your living room, write a report at work, or paint a portrait, working out can deliver fresh ideas and inspiration almost by osmosis.

How come? “Physical activity gets your mind into the bodily experience, so that subconscious connections can pop up,” says Keith Sawyer, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Education of Washington University in St. Louis, whos done extensive research on creativity, and is the author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration.

“If you take breaks—what I call ‘idle time, ideally spent in solitary activities, such as walking, running, or biking—your mind frees up to cross-fertilize so that when you return to intellectual pursuits, youre far better at connecting ideas that at first glance dont seem to be obvious or even related.”

Thats because exercise can literally change your brain to get your creative juices flowing. When you work out, your body flushes out cortisol, the hormone that helps trigger the “fight or flight” response when youre stressed, and which also shuts down brain functions for creativity and problem-solving, explains Pierce J. Howard, PhD, managing director of research and development at the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies in Charlotte, North Carolina, and author of The Owners Manual for The Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research.

Meanwhile, your pituitary gland releases endorphins, which can produce the feel-good “runners high.” Exercise also promotes the growth of new nerve cells and synapses through elevating levels of neurotrophins (a chemical that fosters the growth of new nerve endings) and by increasing oxygen in the blood, which helps provide mental energy.

You dont have to be superfit or coordinated to reap the benefits. In her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp points to the example of Beethovens creative habit: “Although he was not physically fit, Beethoven would start each day with the same ritual: a morning walk during which he would scribble into a pocket sketchbook the first rough notes of whatever musical idea inevitably entered his head. Having done that, having limbered up his mind and transported himself into his version of a trance zone during the walk, he would return to his room and get to work.”

Ready for your creative boost? You might be just one long walk away from the powerhouse idea thats going to change your life—or someone elses. Heres how to get started.

  1. Pick a low-concentration exercise that allows your mind to wander, such as brisk walking, swimming laps, hiking, or running. Sports, such as golf or tennis, or team activities, like soccer or basketball require too much strategizing or in-the-moment focus.
  2. Exercise for a decent duration—at least 30 minutes.
  3. Unless you and a partner plan to brainstorm on a shared project, exercise alone.
  4. Bring a notepad or tape recorder so you can jot down brilliant ideas.
  5. Get to work right after you return, while your creative juices are flowing. The shower can wait!