Last weekend I was snowshoeing and enjoying the woods, including the smells, the sunshine, and a buoyant mood. Coming back down the hill, I had some new ideas about a presentation I'm planning for a conference in April. I found myself excited by the thoughts, even though there was a part of me chastising myself for thinking about work while out enjoying the woods. I let go of that and just enjoyed the creative juices.
So after making notes about my ideas when I got home, I became curious about the phenomenon of ideas popping into my head when exercising. It turns out there's quite a literature about this. I knew that exercise is associated with improvements in mood, yet I wondered about creativity as distinct from mood. In fact when studied, mood and creativity are different phenomenon that are independently improved after exercise.
There is evidence that this effect lasts for several hours. The only caveat is that it works for people who have already gotten into shape. For people who rarely exercise, fatigue from aerobic activity counteracts the short term improvement in creativity. Exercise works better to improve creativity than brainstorming. And creativity is reduced by watching television.
What we eat when we get home from exercise matters also. "Starving artists" may be starving their art by starving their brain. Nutrition has an important effect on creativity: Paul E. Bendheim, neurologist, founder of BrainSavers and author of The Brain Training Revolution: A Proven Workout for Healthy Brain Aging, cites the literature on creativity and healthy brain aging. He notes that creativity is enhanced, and cognitive decline reduced, by eating foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fish.
There is now also evidence that brain chemistry and wiring are measurably affected by exercise. Aerobic exercise both increases the size of the prefrontal cortex and facilitates interaction between it and the amygdala. The effect of exercise on anxiety may allow creative people to step into their fear and be more successful entrepreneurs or artists. Ken Ono, a highly successful mathematician at Emory University, says "To think deeply I need to eliminate distractions... the emails, phone calls, texts. I am free to imagine crazy ideas while floating on trails on my mountain bike," the high-energy mathematician reveals. "I am most productive when I disappear for hours in the woods." His conviction that research and exercise are inextricably linked has already been documented.
So I'm now going to step away from this computer screen and go for a walk on a glorious sunny day. I hope my readers all do the same. Not only will we be healthier, but some creative ideas are bound to emerge.
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