Moving Body, Moving Brain

The author trying to focus on racing rather than letting her mind wander. (Photo by Sarah Maisey)

Diana Valk investigates the link between creativity and exercise.

Today I fell while I was running – not just a little stumble, but an unqualified, spread-eagle, splat that caused me to skid across the pavement. I sat up, stunned and looked back to see what I’d tripped on. I was sure there would be a protruding flagstone responsible for my fall. Instead, much to my surprise, there was only a small, almost indiscernible bump in the pavement, something I surely wouldn’t have fallen on if I’d been paying attention. I had to acknowledge that what I’d really tripped on were my thoughts.

I have a habit, sometimes good, in this case bad, of letting my mind wander when I run or walk. When I’m moving I have some of my most creative thoughts and often I will come up with the solution to a problem that has been bothering me. It’s almost as if the movement of my body promotes the movement of ideas through my brain. Before running I’ll have a slew of unorganised thoughts stagnating in my head, but when I run I find that I am able to sort these ideas into something meaningful. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve composed a letter, solved a work problem, or written the daunting first paragraph of an article while I’m running. Of course, when I talk about running, I’m not referring to high intensity situations like racing or interval training. In those cases, I can only think about keeping motivated to finish. The runs that are most fruitful for my creativity seem to be the easy runs, where I don’t have to think very hard about running and instead allow my mind to focus on other things.

Exercise gets ideas flowing

I’ve always wondered if this experience is unique to me or if there are others who find creative inspiration during exercise.  It turns out, I’m not alone. After a few informal conversations with other Serpies, I found that many of them solve problems or come up with creative ideas while they are running, cycling, or walking. Long-time Serpie Keith Evans has had many a creative insight while on a run. He remembers, “As a director one of my crucial tasks was to produce a camera script. This was a laborious job and I would often be working on it till the early hours, and at times could get totally bogged down in how to shoot a scene. Sometimes on these occasions I would go for a run, even in the early hours, and after a couple of miles the ideas would start flowing again. I’ve no idea if this was creativity through running or just the exercise freshening me up, but it always seemed to work”.

Serpie Fliss Berridge has had similar experiences of problem-solving while exercising.  During a recent work day she found herself feeling very unproductive for most of the morning, but after a cardio workout in the afternoon she suddenly had an epiphany about a work problem. She said, “I finished doing my stretches and thought of how we can implement (at least part of) our marketing strategy … Moral: the sooner you get out and get your exercise, the sooner you’ll think, accidentally, of the solution!” Is this phenomenon something we’re imagining or does exercise actually gets the brain working?

Recent scientific studies suggest the latter. In 2014 Stanford University researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz explored the issue by comparing the results from tests that measured creativity between a group who took the test while sitting and a group that tackled it while walking. They found that walking enhanced creative thinking, specifically divergent thinking, the type of thinking you tap into when you are brainstorming and trying to generate many novel ideas and solutions. The good news for those of you who exercise in the gym is that they discovered that this effect occurred not just while the test participants walked outside surrounded by the beauty of nature, but also when they walked on a treadmill indoors (Oppezzo and Schwartz, 2014).

Creativity and exercise intensity

But as some of us have discovered, you can’t just tap into your creativity every time you exercise. Serpie Kristin Duffy finds that her creativity flows best on “longer runs that don’t require navigation or dodging vehicles” and I find my mind works best when I’m doing my easy runs around the neighbourhood. It seems important to pick an activity that you are comfortable with and can almost do on autopilot. Science backs this up. Studies have shown that for those who regularly exercise, aerobic activity can help creativity, but in those who lead a more sedentary lifestyle, it can negatively impact their creativity perhaps because they have to concentrate more on the exercise at hand (Colzato et al., 2013).

But despite this, it turns out that your creativity might also get a boost after exercise. So, if you’re racing or exercising in a way that’s new to you, you might not get inspiration during your activity, but the Stanford University study suggests that your creative juices are still flowing in the hours directly after exercise. The researchers noticed that when compared to the sitting control group, those who walked continued to perform better on their creativity tests even after they had stopped walking.

A little exercise: good for the body and the brain

So, what are the reasons that exercise could boost creativity? Is it simply that exercise is a way to free your mind or, as the author and chemist Primo Levi said of riding a bike, an occupation “which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things”? Is there an increased blood flow or oxygen intake that promotes thinking? It’s not entirely clear why we might feel more intellectually stimulated when we exercise, but studies have shown that exercise has all sorts of positive effects on the brain. Firstly, it can actually increase the size of your hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for memory) and this can help in staving off problems such as dementia. Secondly, studies on animals have shown that moderate exercise can increase the amounts of certain proteins that are important to learning and memory (Ayan, 2010).

So, next time you’re feeling a bit stuck with a problem, go out for some moderate exercise and the solution might come before you know it. Of course, let my experience be a cautionary tale. Allow your mind to wander, but not so much that you end up sprawled on the ground.

If you’re interested in reading more about this subject, check out these articles:

Ayan, S. (2010). Smart Jocks. Scientific American Mind, 21(4), pp.42-47.

Colzato, L., Szapora, A., Pannekoek, J. and Hommel, B. (2013). The impact of physical exercise on convergent and divergent thinking. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7.

Oppezzo, M. and Schwartz, D. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), pp.1142-1152.

Diana Valk has been a card carrying Serpie since she moved to London from the U.S in 2012. When she is not running she is thinking about bioarchaeology, Spanish verb conjugation, or the next book on her reading list.