Exercise might not literally be magic, but when it comes to physical and mental transformation, it’s probably the closest thing we’ve got. Fitness fanatics develop what sometimes seems – especially when you look at something like Crossfit or ultra-running from the outside – like cultish devotion to what they do. It looks painful, but they love it.
The thing is, if you look not at just “how good exercise is for you” but also how good it can make you feel, those fitness fanatics sure seem like they’re onto something.
Even people who know the physical benefits of exercise well might be surprised by how much of an effect a workout habit can have on the mind. The more we look at it, the more benefits we find.
Earlier this year, neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, author of “Healthy Brain, Happy Life,” wrote in Quartz that in addition to its stress-reducing, mind-focusing, productivity-inducing, and memory-enhancing properties, there seems to be some evidence supporting the idea that exercise could help make us more creative. Exercise seems to help people come up with new ideas, which many researchers use as a proxy for thinking creatively.
Many of us want to develop our fiction-writing, music-composing, or drawing muscles, to get our creative flow going, but it’s no easy task. Yet according to Suzuki, the exercise-induced brain changes that may be responsible for improving memory might improve the imagination as well.
There’s a lot of research that’s still needed in the area, and clearly running doesn’t turn someone into a musician – but there are reasons to think a long run or swim could help strengthen the same parts of the brain people use while being creative.
A creative boost
We know that exercise, especially aerobic workouts like running, stimulates something called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which encourages the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus.
That awesomely-named brain region plays a big role in long term memory, but Suzuki writes that there are also reasons to think that it plays a role in helping people “imagine new situations.”
We know that exercise speeds up the birth of new brain cells in this region, Suzuki explains. We also know that exercise improves the survival rate of these cells. In animal models, researchers have observed that this new cell growth enhances memory. In humans, exercise increases the size of the hippocampus and improves memory.
Suzuki thinks that this growth in the hippocampus could be good for creativity too, since research shows that the ability to imagine the future and to think creatively also depends on this region.
There’s not a ton of data to prove this hypothesis yet, but the studies that do exist are intriguing. There are several studies that show that going for a walk helps people come up with new ideas, and these benefits persist even after a person stops moving. There’s also some data that shows that exercise may help with a sort of creative problem solving, though these benefits may only apply to people who already get regular exercise.
And while we need more human studies to further tease out the exact relationship between exercise, creativity, and the brain, there are at least fascinating anecdotes to support the idea.
Writer Haruki Murakami is one noted devotee of running and even wrote a book on the topic.
“I began running on an everyday basis after I became a writer,” he told Runner’s World back in 2005. He doesn’t say that running is a key to his work, but more that it has become a key for him to fully be himself.
In that interview, Murakami further explained how running affects his work:
“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.
However, in general, I try to get my mind relaxed and rested while running by not thinking about anything. I run to cool down my nerves that get heated up while writing.”
Of course, there are plenty of examples of writers who disdain exercise as well.
But if running or other workouts may encourage parts of the brain associated with creativity and seem to boost memory and productivity, those are all powerful motivating factors that go beyond basic health benefits.
And what Murakami refers to as the nerve-cooling or stress reduction factor is incredibly significant as well. The boost to mental health that comes with a good workout is strongly supported by research. As Brad Stulberg wrote for New York Magazine’s Science of Us, “[w]hat you do in the gym (or on the roads, in the ocean, etc.) makes you a better, higher-performing person outside of it.” He points to several studies that show that students who begin to work out to improve their health. Their bodies also show less of a “stressed out” response at difficult times, like the middle of exams.
So if you need some motivation to get outside and get moving, you could think of the health benefits of exercise. But if that’s not enough, consider the powerful effect it could have on the rest of your life.