Creative thinking gets fired up by exercise.
- 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.
More companies are offering wellness classes and in-house gyms. Some of that is an effort to lower insurance premiums by having healthier workers. But companies and managers are recognizing that regular exercise makes for more productive teammates.
Creative thinking and exercise: An odd couple?
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.
No less a creative powerhouse than Henry David Thoreau knew this: “The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
And Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”
It’s not just figures from history.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said she settled on the special Brexit election while on a walking holiday with her husband.
Science backs it up
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.”
Creative thinking gets a boost from all kinds of exercise, not just walking.
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.”
One woman’s example
Remember Lyndsey from the top of this post?
She’s Lyndsey Wright, a photographer and weightlifter. She’s familiar with both kinds of creative boost from exercise.
And they recently helped her make a major decision.
“Lifting weights and sparring are the two quickest ways to get myself into a flow state of thinking,” she told me.
“I find myself remembering things I’ve been struggling to recall, coming up with solutions to problems I’m dealing with, and having good ideas for photos pop into my head during heavy workouts on a regular basis.”
She had been struggling to decide between leaving a job and striking out on her own.
“I’d be stressing myself out about it to the point of anxiety attacks and sleepless nights, and I just couldn’t get my brain to slow down enough to make any sense of the crap flying around in it.
“So I went to the gym with the intention of lifting myself to the point of exhaustion, because it’s cathartic.
“I spent a few hours lifting everything I could and I focused on that. I found my brain sorting things out and being able to form complete thoughts about the work situation.”
She gained clarity and confidence after every workout and now is the proud owner of her own photography business.
“I’m 100 percent convinced that there’s no way I could have made that decision confidently if I hadn’t had something else to pour my energy into enough to gain some clarity,” Lyndsey says.
Not just artistic pursuits
Leo Stefansson is a visual artist and creative coder who suggests walking and also writing or drawing for a few minutes in a stream of consciousness, just to free your mind from your internal editor and get the brain going.
“Creativity is something that will help you solve any problem, not only making art,” he wrote in an online forum. “You can be creative no matter what you do and get more enjoyment from any task.”
Frank Thomas of Gameplan-A.com, an Adidas site, prescribes a whole intricate workout to address the different stages of creative thinking and problem solving.
He suggests that rather than staying late to work overtime, instead go to the gym straight from work.
“You’ll still be brooding over your puzzle,” he says. “Use the warm-up to mentally wrap it up – don’t think about potential solutions, just summarize the challenge’s key characteristics.
“Then draw a line: accept that you haven’t been able to find a satisfying answer yet and make a decision to let it go for now.”
Let it go. Think about something else. Or think about nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other. Or your breathing. Or pushing that weight.
We’re often told to “sleep on it” when we have a decision to make, after all.
Showing company values
More and more employers are supporting health and wellness programs among their companies. Some have gyms on the grounds, even bringing in yoga and Zumba instructors.
I’ve gathered examples from companies large and small, from Miami to Anchorage (literally).
It’s good for business, since a coordinated effort can help lower health insurance premiums.
But it also promotes a company’s values, if they include work-life balance and empowering employees enough to trust that productivity doesn’t mean being chained to a cubicle all day.
“Big companies tend to attract people who are like them,” says Kelly Angell, who works in organizational development.
“Building a fitness center is not going to make your people work out more… unless you also allow them the time to use it instead of encouraging them to work out a hundred hours a week.”
Look for a company that encourages groups of coworkers to participate in activities like charity walks or Habitat for Humanity building projects, says Kelly — who personally loves long, contemplative walks and “gotta focus right now” Cross Fit classes.
That could reveal more than the presence of a workout area.
Getting paid to exercise at work?
At Clif Bar & Company, employees get paid to exercise 30 minutes a day, or 2.5 hours a week. Clif Bar makes it easy, a 2,500-square-foot onsite gym, a bouldering wall and group classes.
Hootsuite founder and CEO Ryan Holmes recently published a piece on LinkedIn and inc.com with the provocative headline, “Why It’s Time We Paid People to Exercise at Work.”
He says fitness has always been a part of the company culture, deliberately so.
“But even on a ruthlessly practical level, allowing and encouraging employees to exercise at work makes good sense. I see employees return from workouts refreshed and better focused on their jobs. Time lost on exercise is made back and more in terms of improved productivity.”
Holmes cites a study presented to the American College of Sports Medicine. It said:
- Employees said their performance shot up 15 percent if they exercised 30 to 60 minutes at lunchtime.
- Exercise improved time management, mental performance, and ability to meet deadline, according to 60 percent of workers.
- They also said they got tired less in the afternoons and were in better moods.
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 basic 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.
I’ve worked at companies that were at various points on the spectrum. Some strongly encouraged fitness and wellness in ways big and small. Others made it clear that your health was your problem — and get back to work, already.
Not everyone gets an ideal setup, of course.
Keep it simple
But you might find that going to the gym or taking a Pilates class is too much for you.
Just remember the basics when you’re stuck on a problem.
“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.
Works for me, too. Every time.
Same with John, a doctor. And Cindy, a social worker.
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.
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