Can Exercise Boost Your Creativity?

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Can exercise make you more creative? Can Exercise Boost Your Creativity?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know by now that running has much more to offer than simply keeping the waistline in check. From boosting physical and mental health to easing the symptoms of depression, anxiety, menopause, and PMS, some feel that running may just be the closest thing to a magic bullet that we’ve got.

And as if that isn’t enough reason to dust off those running shoes, researchers recently discovered yet another reason to get moving. Yes, that’s right. Exercise could also boost your creativity. So if you’re suffering from writer’s block, or short on ideas for a work pitch or new painting, listen up.

The science behind it

According to neuroscientist and exercise aficionado, Professor Wendy A. Suzuki, “recent findings have suggested that the brain’s hippocampus is also involved in giving people the ability to imagine new situations.” And since we already know that exercise enhances the formation of new hippocampal cells, this discovery implies that exercise may also boost the imaginative function of the brain. And although research on the subject is still in its infancy, Professor Suzuki says it “raises the exciting possibility that exercise could make students more imaginative at school and adults more creative at work, with broad benefits for society as a whole.”

A promising study on the subject was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition in 2014. In this study, participants completed different experiments with a view to demonstrating the impact of walking on the formation of new ideas and concepts. It was found that, in a nutshell, “walking substantially enhanced creativity by two different measures. For the three alternate uses studies, 81%, 88%, and 100% of participants were more creative walking than sitting.”

Another study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2013 came to the interesting conclusion that “exercise may enhance convergent thinking [one of the key components of creativity], at least in individuals with a higher degree of physical fitness.” In this study, 48 sedentary individuals completed two mental tasks while at rest, while 48 individuals who’ve been exercising at least three times a week for two years, completed the same mental tasks while riding stationary bicycles. Overall, the regular exercisers performed better in both tasks than the sedentary individuals. Also noteworthy, is that the fit participants performed better at the convergent thinking task while being active than while sitting still. The sedentary participants, on the other hand, performed worse at this test while cycling, seemingly because the act of cycling taxed their brains enough to negatively impact concentration. The bottom line? If you’re already fit, a single workout can boost creative thinking.

A short-lived benefit

Note that the above-mentioned study also found that the creative boost that regular exercisers get from a workout, is only temporary. According to the research team, “the enhancement of cognitive-control processes by aerobic fitness is so short-lived that positive effects are restricted to performance during or directly after exercising.” So don’t count on last week’s run to get your creative juices flowing today. This particular perk of running is best reaped on the run or immediately after. All the more reason keep things consistent, don’t you think?

Well-known running creatives

And while all of this research is relatively new, individuals have been using the link between exercise and increased creativity to their advantage for centuries. Philosopher Henry David Thoreau, for example, wrote in the 1800s that “the moment my legs begin to move my thoughts begin to flow.” American novelist and poet, Louisa May Alcott (1832 – 1888), who is perhaps best known for her novel Little Women, was also reportedly a devoted runner.

In more recent times, running writer and blogger, David Hindley, has the following to say about running and the creative process of writing: “…running for me helps to create a productive space for ‘mind wandering’, where creative thoughts crystallize and ideas incubate. On a long run, mentally I am able to envision whole sentences and paragraphs with a cognitive flexibility that I rarely have when sitting behind a desk.”

The takeaway

So while running definitely won’t turn you into a master painter overnight, it may just give you a creative boost when you least expect it. In the words of Haruki Murakami, author of the well-known memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “I try not to think about anything special while running. As a matter of fact, I usually run with my mind empty. However, when I run empty-minded, something naturally and abruptly crawls in sometime. That might become an idea that can help me with my writing.”

So put on those running shoes and get going. You never know when that million dollar idea might pop up out of the blue!