I keep a pad of paper and a pencil on the magazine holder attached to my stationary bike. Why? Interestingly, amidst my huffing and puffing and ensuing muscular fatigue while cycling, I find that my brain seems to awaken with creative solutions to life's problems, fundraising projects for my children's school, tasty recipe ideas, and thoughts for article posts which I need to jot down lest I forget. Some would argue that my heightened mental processing at this time is a direct result of a quiet household - everyone else is still in bed; and so, I have the opportunity to think without interruption. Although this fact may contribute some, I believe that it is the physical activity itself
that fosters my creativity at this hour.
The correlation between improved cognitive function and participation in regular exercise has received recognition and support in the research community over the last several years. Less well understood, however, is the specific relationship between enhanced creativity and routine physical activity. Much of the research on the topic is anecdotal and inconclusive, partly because testing creativity in a quantitative manner proves to be difficult. However, the trend appears to be that a positive correlation does exist.
The results of a study conducted by Steinberg et al., which were published in the September 1997 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, support this concept. Sixty-three subjects were exposed to two different testing conditions: "video then exercise" and "exercise then video" in which the video session consisted of watching an emotionally "neutral" documentary and the exercise component entailed participation in either aerobic exercise or aerobic dance. The subjects were asked to complete questionnaires that assessed mood (modified adjective list) and creative thinking (3 measures of the Torrance Test - fluency, flexibility, and originality). Mood was evaluated both before and after the video viewing and exercise sessions. Creativity was only measured after the video viewing and exercise sessions.
The investigators found mood to be significantly increased after the exercise session and creativity, as measured by flexibility (the variety of the responses to the questionnaire), to have been significantly boosted by the physical activity. Furthermore, a trend of improvement in creativity, as measured by fluency (the number of responses), was noted after the exercise; however, it was not statistically significant. Finally, the researchers stated that their results revealed that creativity was enhanced independent of mood.
Indeed, research is limited on this topic. Hopefully further investigations will unveil a stronger positive correlation between exercise and enhanced creative thinking, as well as mechanisms by which it is achieved. Current theories include:
- Increased blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain as a result of the physical activity.
- Exercise-induced growth of new nerve cells and synapses by means of increased levels of neutrophins (hormones involved in new nerve cell growth).
- Increased release of endorphins during exercise which leads to a natural/"runner's" high.
- Reduction in cortisol (stress hormone) levels with physical activity. High levels of cortisol can interfere with brain performance.
For me, I will continue to keep my pad of paper and pencil at the ready while I exercise. Without a doubt, physical activity fuels my creative processes and energizes me to navigate the day ahead in an innovative, productive manner.
Note: Before beginning an exercise program or increasing the intensity level of a current routine, a physician's approval should be obtained, especially for older adults and those at risk for or who currently have chronic health conditions.
British Journal of Sports Medicine, September 1997; 31:240-245, "Exercise Enhances Creativity Independently of Mood," Steinberg, H. et a,l.
Labels: creative thinking, creativity, exercise, physical activity