I am by no means, an exerciser. “Voluntary sweating,” I call it. And I try to avoid it at all costs. If you were to ask me what I rather do than “go running” I’d have a few dozen quick answers. Walk for instance. Sit might be a close second, and who could forget the all-time greatest activity, laying down? One thing I know to be true is that all three of those take less effort than running (insightful right?).
Ready for a second thing I don’t enjoy? It’s being stuck on something. You know, one of those frustrating creative ruts that feel remediless. Time starts to stretch out to an agonizing length, distorting like a hallway in a dream, all twisty, nauseous and psychedelic. You feel yourself slipping deeper into the hole stress has dug. You start to make enemies out of the street lights on your way home, yelling at every driver, and you can’t even find anything to listen to despite having almost the entire world of recorded music available to you at the palm of your hand.
Things just keep getting worse. Whether you’re putting the finishing touches on that painting or song, brainstorming with your colleagues, figuring out how to balance your own schedule, or just trying to figure out what exactly it is your super-vague boss wants (“grab the reader by the f*cking throat” he says!) you begin that familiar cyclical dialogue with yourself:
“How do I solve the problem?”
“It’s stressing me out that I can’t solve the problem.”
“It’s stressing me out that it’s stressing me out, which is stressing me out!”
Now if you, a well-meaning individual, were to tell me I should consider running on top of all of that stress I’ve got going on, I would ask you if you were some kind of jerk. When you’re stressed about something, some rando on the WORLD WIDE WEB telling you what to do is only going to add to your frustration. No one wants that.
And yet… I’m here to say: You should consider running!
Sure, being frustrated may not instantly drum-up a desire within you to start running. But there’s tons of cool anecdotal evidence from a lot of really awesome and influential artists and thinkers about how important moving is to get our brain flowing. Even cooler than that, there’s a lot of scientific evidence that backs it all up and suggests just how vital movement is to the health of our brains.
American poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” According to a study conducted at Stanford University, physical movement does, in fact, seem to have a positive effect on creative ideation. Of all three studies conducted 80% of participants were found to be more creative after physical activity than their sedentary counterparts.
It’s important to have a clear mind and when your body is busy doing something strenuous your mind is free to flex. The best part is, these effects don’t fade away quickly after you’re done exercising. Your brain boost will last you hours after your workout, benefitting you when you need it most!
An academic study published in the Creativity Research Journal (yes it’s a real thing, and its legit) measured creativity following exercise. Once again there was a significant increase in the creative potential of those who exercised prior to taking the Torrance Test, a test designed to measure creative thinking, than those who did not. The study showed that the effects continued hours after the exercise was finished, with no measurable drop.
It seems exercise’s effect on creativity isn’t like some pill that gradually wears off, it’s likely brand-new stresses and worries are what begin to stiffen your brain again. So exercise works as a great way to maintain your brain’s flexibility.
Taking on a new activity is never easy. But don’t worry, you don’t have to be a great runner or athlete to run. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, in his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running writes:
I’m not a great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary — or perhaps more like mediocre — level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday… the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.
Murakami didn’t start his relationship with running until he was 33, but since then he has made a point to run almost every day, competing in over twenty marathons and an ultra-marathon. He’s now 69. It is vital for your brain to take a break from the noise of the world, to unplug from your devices and distractions and reconnect with yourself.
“When I’m running I don’t have to talk to anybody and don’t have to listen to anybody. This is a part of my day I can’t do without,” writes Murakami.
Whether you work in a solo environment or with a team, your brain has got you covered! You’ll be happy to know exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on both divergent (the type of thinking that excels at brainstorming in a group) and convergent thinking (finding one solution to a particular obstacle) — two separable components of human creativity.
But wait, there’s more! According to a study — yes, another damn study — moderate aerobic exercise may even be enough to help you cope with anxiety and depression (the two enemies of creativity). Two groups of participants were shown a sad clip. Those that had gone for a jog were better equipped to handle their emotions, and those who did not had “more perceived difficulty generating regulatory strategies and engaging in goal-directed behaviors” including a “more intense and persistent negative effect in response to the stressor.”
Now stop and think about just how many depressing videos and news stories we hear about on the daily. Is not being able to move through those emotions making us less creative?
Is running the cure-all so many of us are looking for to reignite our creativity? Well no, because cure-alls don’t exist. But there is significant evidence that supports the idea that running provides maintenance for the mind and body. Think of it like a daily multi-vitamin or supplement, minus all the shadiness of ingredient sourcing. Also, unlike supplements, running is free.
So don’t feel like you can’t do this because you’re not an exerciser, or you hate voluntary sweating, as I do. If that’s not you, don’t do it for the physical exercise. Do it for the freedom that running brings, for the exhilarating feeling of your body working in service of your mind. Listen to the polyrhythms of your beating heart and your shoes against the ground. Push yourself to your own personal limits, not a step counter, or a carefully planned regimen. Run for you, to stomp out all of the self-doubt and frustration we all go through being working people in our mad modern world.
Run for creativity’s sake. Because creativity — in a world that often seems to be forcing us to live singularly uncreative lives — is something worth running for.