Get physical to think, work and perform more creatively

For a long time it's been suggested that exercising can get the creative juices flowing. Now, several studies demonstrate that working out really does improve creativity
Get physical to think, work and perform more creatively
(Getty Images)
By Hayden Thin
Wed 02 Nov 2016 09:49 AM

Ludwig van Beethoven was known for his early morning walks, as was Steve Jobs. And if you find yourself on Facebook's Palo Alto campus early enough, you're likely to witness one of Mark Zuckerberg's famous walking meetings.

For a long time it was suggested that going for a walk or exercising would help your creativity, but now several studies back up those claims. Indeed, regular exercise stimulates certain brain centres, which changes the way we approach problems – improving creativity in the process.

What does science say?

A study performed at Leiden University in the Netherlands found that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise boosts almost every dimension of cognition and creativity is no exception.

Researchers of the study noted that the regular aerobic exercise seems to improve convergent and divergent thinking. These are considered the two components of creative thinking and are often referred to as brain flexibility.

The former involves thinking of one solution for a problem the latter involves thinking of multiple solutions for a problem. Interestingly, the type of aerobic exercise doesn't matter, and the increased performance lasts for at least two hours afterward.

One of the researchers, cognitive psychologist Professor Lorenza Colzato, found that those who exercised for four times a week were able to think more creatively than those with a more sedentary lifestyle.

[Image: Getty Images]

When tested the volunteers who exercised regularly performed better on a series of cognitive tests. However, the improvement seemed only to occur in the participants who were physically fit. For those who rarely exercise, the fatigue from aerobic activity counteracts the short-term benefits.

Researchers at Stanford University found that people perform better on creative divergent thinking tests during and immediately after walking.

They found a person walking on a treadmill indoors facing a blank wall or walking outdoors both equally produced twice as many creative responses compared to a person sitting down.

So why is it that repetitive type exercise, this is exercise which involves the same or similar movements repetitively, increases the brains ability for creativity?

Indulge in repetition

First of all, exercise literally changes your brain chemistry to get your creative juices flowing. When you exercise, your body flushes out cortisol, the hormone that helps trigger the “fight or flight” response when you’re stressed, and which also shuts down brain functions for creativity and problem-solving.

While this is true for all types of exercise, repetitive exercise allows you to subconsciously process and think differently. The fact that repetitive exercising can be boring, is the very aspect that causes your mind to revisit, even subconsciously, on what you’ve been analysing and learning helping you to come up with new and creative solutions.

Solitary activities, such as running, walking, or biking frees your mind up so that cross-fertilization of ideas can occur and when you return to intellectual pursuits, you’re far better at connecting ideas that didn’t seem to be obvious or even related.

“Sometimes a deliberate attempt to be creative may not be the best way to optimize your creativity”, said Allan Reiss, a researcher at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, “While greater effort to produce creative outcomes involves more activity of executive-control regions, you actually may have to reduce activity in those regions in order to achieve creative outcomes.”

Scientists at this Institute discovered a surprising link between creative problem-solving and heightened activity in the cerebellum, a structure in the brain that's more typically thought of as the body's movement-coordination centre.

The cerebellum was traditionally thought of as being the brain's practice-makes-perfect, movement-control centre, but its stimulation has now also been linked to creativity.

Playing tennis, taking a walk, running around the block activates the "creative cerebellum” by deliberately diverting your attention, quietening the left prefrontal cortex, and activating the movement-oriented cerebellum.

Getting practical.

So what's the best way to get started? Select a repetitive low-concentration exercise that allows your mind to wander, such as running, swimming laps, elliptical training, rowing, or brisk inclined walking.

Sports, such as golf or tennis, or team activities, like soccer or cricket are not repetitive and also require too much strategizing or in-the-moment focus. Next, make sure you exercise for at least 30 minutes, and do so alone; you won't want any distractions.

Keep intensity levels within 55 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. And try to begin working right after you get back from your workout. At that time, your creative powers will be at their max.

Hayden Thin Is a specialised health and fitness consultant and master trainer. For the past 17-years he has worked with a range of clients, from CEOs and CEO mentors, to founding directors and TV personalities. He is also the founder of Fit First Class, a boutique fitness training and education practice based in Abu Dhabi. For more information, visit

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