There are very few magic pills with the power to improve not just your health but your mood, your memory, and your creative output. Exercise is one of them.

While it is essential for your physical and mental health, did you realize that your morning run might also be boosting your creativity?

Numerous studies have uncovered a link between physical activity and heightened levels of inventiveness. Countless creatives in the artistic, scientific, and business spheres have adopted a daily exercise routine as an invaluable part of their process.

Here’s the science behind why physical activity makes us more creative and the fascinating exercise habits of six trail-blazing creatives.

Does Exercise Really Make You More Creative?

“Some of the best ideas I get seem to happen when I’m doing mindless manual labor or exercise. I’m not sure how that happens, but it leaves me free for remarkable ideas to occur.” – Chuck Palahniuk

There’s a growing body of research looking into the ways that exercise can improve your creative thinking. There are several explanations for its impact on creativity:

  • Anatomy – exercise causes the brain to be flooded with oxygen-rich blood, meaning it has the fuel to work at maximum efficiency. There’s also evidence to suggest that exercise can promote the growth of new connections between brain cells.
  • Mental Health – There’s a huge amount of scientific (and anecdotal) evidence to support the idea that physical activity can improve our mood  (remember ‘runner’s high’).  It’s also known to reduce stress, anxiety and other negative emotions, all things that can inhibit creativity.
  • Memory – Exercise has been shown to stimulate and strengthen parts of the brain related to memory, like the hippocampus. The more you remember, the more you collect and can draw from for your creative ideation.
  • Change of Environment – Exercise often requires us to leave our workspace. Getting outside or into a different space can spark creativity. Certain types of exercise also expose us to sources of inspiration, such as a jog or bike ride through nature.

bike with brightly colored tires in front of a white brick wall

Exercise and the Creative Brain

The neurological relationship between creativity and activity may run much deeper than we think.

There seems to be a clear relationship between physical activity and the mental processes that lead to creativity, such as divergent thinking (coming up with many different possible solutions) and convergent thinking (identifying the best solution).

One theory that seeks to explain the exercise-creative boost is ‘transient hypofrontality’. It roughly translates to “temporary less frontal lobe” – referring to the area responsible for orderly and systematic thinking. The theory suggests that some of our normal cognitive functions are muted or suspended during exercise. This allows our brain to work in unfamiliar ways and to connect ideas in patterns it might not have before, both key parts of creative ideation.

So, while your morning workout might not always leave you feeling on top of the world, it could still lead to a creative breakthrough.

The Exercise Routines of Successful Creatives

Creatives have been hailing exercise as a key part of their process for centuries, long before scientific studies began to back them up. If you study the daily routines of inventors, composers, artists, writers, and business leaders, chances are you’ll find at least some portion of their time devoted to regular exercise.

Here are the exercise habits of six successful creatives and what they can teach us about activity and creativity:

The Flying Mind of Joyce Carol Oates

For one of the most poetic takes on exercise and creativity, we can look to an interview about running that novelist Joyce Carol Oates gave to The New York Times in 1999.

Rather than simply feeling refreshed or empowered by her runs, Oates views her exercise as a sacred time where she can truly inhabit her thoughts. As she put it: “In running, the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.”

Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Strolls

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a great example of how interspersing exercise throughout your day can help to prime and recharge your brain for creative work.

The legendary composer always took a short walk in the morning, before settling down to his work. He would then go for a long walk after lunch, jotting down ideas to work on later as they came to him.

Haruki Murakami’s Mesmerism

The novelist Haruki Murakami imposes a strict regime on himself whenever he needs to work on a book, which includes a period of vigorous exercise (a 10km run, 1500m swim, or both).

The author of 1Q84 believes that this repetitive pattern and strict physical discipline helps to ‘mesmerize’ him, letting him sink down into a deeper state of consciousness. There’s plenty of evidence that rituals and routine can and do drive our creativity.

Nicola Tesla’s Leg Power

Nicola Tesla was no stranger to the power of movement to stimulate ideas: he came up with alternating current while on a walk in the park.

He once remarked: “I walk eight or ten miles every day, and never take a cab or other conveyances when I have the time to use leg power.”

The eccentric scientist also claimed to exercise in the bath, though unfortunately, he didn’t provide instructions for that part of his regime!

Ryan Holmes’ Clarity

In an interview, the co-founder of Hootsuite explained: “The one thing that really helps me stay focused is exercise. After I jog, do yoga, or get out and do some backcountry skiing, I always come back with more clarity and focus.”

Creative problem solving requires appropriate (and often significant) processing time. By stepping away from your desk to do something totally different, you give your brain a chance to catch up and work through problems without you actively thinking about them.

Anna Wintour’s ‘Terrible’ Game

The legendary editor of American Vogue works out every day and is renowned for her love of tennis. While talking about the sport to the Guardian newspaper in 2019,  she revealed another powerful aspect of exercise when she explained that her game is terrible but that she still enjoys it.

While exercise (and sport especially) is often seen as a constant effort to better yourself and your skills, Wintour proves that it’s possible to use it to create a fun, low-stakes environment. If you’re striving for perfection with your creative work, having something you do for pure enjoyment is a great counterbalance.

tennis racket with tennis ball on the ground of a tennis court

Active Body, Creative Mind

It can be challenging to set aside time for physical activity, particularly if you’re busy or tired. Making that effort is well worth it though, as you’ll benefit both your health, your creativity and (by extension) your work.

From swimming to yoga, skiing to tennis, the exercise habits of successful creatives are as different as the creative work they help support. They’re a good reminder that exercise can take any form that works for you. You don’t need to find the room for a 10k run every day.

Find an exercise that suits the time and energy you have available. You might need to experiment for a while to find the routine that gets you firing on all creative cylinders. While cycling to work or spending 30 minutes in the gym might not feel like much, there’s no knowing what ideas it might spark or where they could take you.

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