People love creativity. It gives us new ideas and opens up new, exciting, even somewhat crazy possibilities. Even those who don’t perceive themselves as creative types still get to enjoy the ride. It’s portrayed in popular culture as fun, exhilarating, a burst of genius.
But for those who rely on creativity to make a living, it’s actually a serious business. And it can get dull or even downright depressing when the ideas aren’t forthcoming. Having the tools for the job isn’t enough. Whether it’s a blank page or a versatile engraving machine, you still need the inspiration to start firing.
When you’re stuck in a mental rut, there’s a lot of temptation to push through until that dam bursts. Yet evidence shows that instead of banging your mind against a metaphorical wall, you may be better off working out.
What creatives say
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for the benefits of physical activity to our creative powers. Famously, Friedrich Nietzsche loved to hike to clear his mind and let the ideas flow. There’s even a trail named after him in the mountains outside Nice. The philosopher also extolled the virtues of a regular walking habit to spark inspiration among the city-bound.
There are other creatives throughout who have discovered that the body can unlock the mind. And they have tried different activities as well. Ernest Hemingway’s many adventures included sport fishing, big game hunting, and boxing. Thoreau tied his walks to the power of nature. Philip Roth was an avid swimmer.
You don’t even have to take the pros at their word. Some of these exercises, like walking, can be tested immediately for their efficacy. And don’t people often find that great ideas come in the shower? Simply moving about can put you in a more positive frame of mind.
What science says
However, not everyone is willing to put their trust in the testimony of others. As early as 1997, researchers were able to separate the effects of exercise on mood and creativity. They demonstrated that it improves both independently of each other.
Your creativity doesn’t spark just because you’re in a good mood. The body really does help the mind enter a flow state.
Another study in 2014 was able to reaffirm the benefits of walking for creativity. The analysis likewise managed to separate the act of walking from the environment in which it took place. Indoors or out, the main factor is really getting off your chair and into a more aerobically challenging state of activity.
Why it works
If exercise is so beneficial to creativity, why don’t more creatives dedicate time to working out? In fact, how come history is littered with examples of artists and writers who actually sabotaged their bodies?
Creativity isn’t solely a function of how active you are. If it were a recipe, there would be many other ingredients. The mechanism behind this is rooted in the way the brain works.
Our brains use three different networks or modes of operation. There’s default or idle mode, an executive network to help in decision-making, and a salience network that tells you what to observe in the environment.
These networks operate in concert, and our brains’ system has the potential to be in many different states. People all have different levels of innate creativity, and it’s possible to go far just by pushing the mind’s executive function, for instance.
But focusing only on that lever deprives you of processing other potential information states. Exercise lets your mind wander and explore those other states, translating to new ideas reached by divergent thinking.
Types of exercise to try
Are certain types of exercise more beneficial than others? The research into this aspect of creativity is still growing. Extensive studies will need to be performed and replicated before we can be conclusive.
But you may be better off looking for certain attributes of exercise. First, try to keep it reasonably within your capabilities. If you’re not very fit, aim for moderate aerobic exercise, for instance. This helps you avoid subsequent fatigue, which can negate the benefits of the creative boost.
Second, avoid routines that require active thinking. You’re trying to disengage your mind and give it the freedom to wander while your body takes over, after all. Fartlek training, for instance, lets you set spontaneous, arbitrary goals, such as sprinting up to the next tree. It takes your mind off timers, set and rep counts, and brings the fun back to your exercise.
Keep on trying different types of exercise along these lines until you find something that works. And in the process, you’ll enjoy better health and a long creative career.