Michael, a corporate attorney, solves his complicated work problems while swimming.
Todd, who manages PR for a large communications firm, likes to have one-on-one meetings with his direct reports at the company gym.
And Lyndsey, a photographer, cleared her head to open her own business while lifting weights and sparring in the gym.
These friends of mine represent just some of the anecdotal evidence, of course.
But there’s a growing body of scientific studies that make the connection between exercise, even just light walking, and creative thinking. The health benefits of walking are numerous and should be a part of everyone's daily routine, but only as a starting point. Strength training and balance work are essential, particularly after 50.
Exercise Boosts Creative Thinking: For Real?
If you think working out and taking care of business are somehow an odd couple, think again.
Great thinkers all the way back to Aristotle wrote about the connection between walking and thinking. And Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”
In a recent study, experts found participants who walked more saw an 81 percent rise in creative thinking on a key scale to measure divergent and convergent thinking, the two main components of creative thinking.
“Moreover, when seated after walking, participants exhibited a residual creative boost,” wrote Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford University in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.
The benefits come whether you’re walking indoors or outside, they said:
“Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”
All kinds of exercise boosts creative thinking.
Bicycling, yoga… whatever.
And people who are in good shape get more benefits, research shows.
“Those who exercise regularly are better at creative thinking… Regular exercisers fared better on creativity tests than did non-exercisers,” wrote cognitive psychologist, Lorenza Colzato in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
“We think that physical movement is good for the ability to think flexibly, but only if the body is used to being active. Otherwise a large part of the energy intended for creative thinking goes to the movement itself.”
Works for me
As a writer, my thoughts and experiences on exercise and creativity have evolved with society’s.
When I was starting out, I was lured by the clichés of supposedly glamorous hard living, finding wisdom in the wee hours, and dredging up creative bursts by sheer will and technique when forced under deadline.
But over the years, as fitness became more and more important to me, I noticed that I’m a better writer, editor and strategist when I’m in good shape.
That means more than just exercise. I also need to eat right and get plenty of rest. And I need to feed my mind and spirit with friends, family, art, community and spiritual pursuits.
Balance, I suppose.
Keeping it simple helps me to remember that exercise boosts creative thinking. I try to stick with the basics when I'm stuck on a problem. Weightlifting is great sometimes. Yoga at others. They're so difficult that I can't think of anything else.
“If I am writing and hit a snag, if I get up and walk around I almost always come up with a solution to whatever the problem is,” Connie, a writer friend, told me.
That works for me, too. Every time.
Creativity is key to success at any kind of work. And exercise can help you — any kind of it.
So go for a walk. Long or short. Indoors or out. Just move and you will get somewhere.
Free your body, and the rest will follow.