‘All it takes is a quick walk’: how a few minutes’ exercise can unleash creativity – even if you hate it | Health & wellbeing

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Need to get your creative juices flowing? Get moving. A long line of influential thinkers have instinctively moved their bodies to open their minds, from Darwin, who advanced his theory of evolution while accumulating laps of his “thinking path”, to Nietzsche, who in 1888 warned: “Do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement.” And now scientists are not just confirming the link between exercise and creativity, but unpicking precisely how it works.

Often, when we hear about the benefits of physical activity, researchers are really referring to the benefits of fitness – the product of regular and repeated physical activity. But what’s interesting about creativity is that it appears to be enhanced through the very act of moving the body.

“Even a single, brief bout of aerobic exercise can ignite creative thinking,” says Dr Chong Chen, assistant professor in the department of neuroscience at Yamaguchi University, Japan, and author of a new review on the topic. How brief? One study that Chong was involved with looked at the effects of climbing four flights of stairs – an activity that took just a few minutes.

Alex McIntosh has seen that first-hand. He’s creative director of Create Sustain, a consultancy that helps businesses to be more sustainable. “I pretty much rely on running and walking to create space and clarity and to come up with ideas,” he says. “If I don’t exercise, I can really feel the difference. My body starts to feel sluggish and then my brain follows suit – I feel blocked and frustrated. Sometimes all it takes is a quick walk to knock that feeling on the head.”

Researchers generally look at two aspects of creativity. Coming up with ideas – drawing associations between diverse and unrelated things (think “apple falling to ground and gravitational theory”) – is classed as divergent thinking. Weighing up which ideas are worth pursuing requires a more controlled and deliberate mental process – a kind of narrowing in – known as convergent thinking. (Think “solving crossword clue”.)

Even a single, brief bout of aerobic exercise can ignite creative thinking. Photograph: Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd/Getty Images

The research thus far shows that it is the divergent, “think outside the box” aspect of creativity that is most reliably enhanced by physical activity. Numerous studies, looking at everything from the effects of dancing to cycling, stair climbing to running, have noted its improvement post-exercise.

You may wonder how something as slippery as blue-sky thinking is assessed. “Divergent thinking tests have no single ‘correct’ answer,” Chen says. “They require you to come up with a range of different solutions.” In the alternate use test, for example, subjects are asked to suggest unusual uses for everyday items – such as a tyre or a brick – and scored on how many they can think of and how diverse (varied) and original those uses are. This is considered to be a good indicator of creative potential and has been shown to predict creative achievement in the real world.

If you’re thinking: “My job/my life isn’t creative, so this is irrelevant to me,” think again. Many challenges in our lives call upon our creativity, be it devising a business plan, making a tasty meal from leftovers, inventing a lifesaving vaccine or entertaining your children. “We commonly associate creativity with people who ‘make things’ – artists and architects, poets and playwrights,” says Dr Christian Rominger, a postdoctoral researcher in health psychology at the University of Graz. “But all of us have both the potential, and the need, to be creative.”

My days customarily begin with walking or jogging the dog. But Morris, our terrier, is getting on a bit and sometimes, on seeing me getting ready to go, makes a dash under the bed. At first, I thought: “Fine – I’ll get to my desk sooner.” But after a few occasions of staring at my screen, bereft of inspiration, I realised that I needed that morning exercise as much as Morris did.

So, what is it about physical activity that unlocks creativity? It has long been known that exercise benefits the brain, in terms of both mental health and cognitive function. “When performed regularly, aerobic activity can trigger structural changes, such as increased brain volume, particularly of the hippocampus, which benefit many aspects of cognition, such as working memory, attentional control and information-processing,” says Amir-Homayoun Javadi, a reader in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Kent. “This gives the brain more potential to be creative.”

But such adaptations take time. How can simply walking up a few flights have an effect? Acute exercise (ie, a single exercise session) temporarily improves blood circulation, Javadi suggests, bringing fresh oxygen to the brain and increasing the production of neurotrophic factors – proteins that promote the growth and survival of brain cells.

Neuroimaging has shown that exercise can produce changes in brain activity. Physical activity that isn’t mentally demanding (think easy walk or run, rather than hockey match or gymnastics) can induce a state of “transient hypofrontality”, in which activity within the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for “higher order” cognitive processes, such as paying attention, decision making and reasoning – is temporarily dampened down, allowing your thoughts to float free.

“It’s why you sometimes find that you’ve hit on a great idea or solution after a walk or run, even though you weren’t consciously thinking about it,” says Javadi, who co-authored the brilliantly titled paper Joggin’ the Noggin.

Reflecting on her writing routine in an article in The New York Times, the author and lifelong runner Joyce Carol Oates said: “The structural problems I set for myself in writing … I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon.” This is a process known in creativity research as incubation.

“An activity that supports incubation needs to take you away from what you were doing, boost positive feelings (or at least reduce negative ones) and be undemanding enough to allow the mind to wander,” says Prof Kathryn Williams, an environmental psychologist at the University of Melbourne. “It is during mind-wandering (when attention switches from a current task to unrelated thoughts and feelings) that we are most likely to draw connections between diverse ideas and have novel thoughts – the epitome of divergent thinking.”

This helps to explain why very high-intensity exercise (an all-out 10K run, for example) hasn’t been shown to benefit creative thinking in the same way that more moderate activities do – something McIntosh has noticed. “I find if I’m running too hard, I just go into a kind of meditative state, which is great for general mental health but not particularly for idea generation,” he says. “For me, a slower steady run is better for letting ideas flow and evolve.”

Chen adds that if exercise is too intense, the physical stress can lower both mood and cognitive ability. What constitutes “too intense”, of course, will vary from person to person. What might feel like a comfortable, pleasant pace to one runner might feel like a near-death experience to another.

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That’s why Javadi believes it’s not specific activities but individuals’ experiences of them that determine their effect. “Running on a treadmill at the gym, you can go into your own zone and switch off,” he says. “On the streets, you have to engage constantly with your environment – turn left, right, avoid obstacles – which distracts you and interrupts your thoughts. Running in the woods, you have the additional effects of nature on the brain. They are all very different experiences, and they may affect your creativity via different pathways.”

For the novelist Sarah Moss, running provides a rare opportunity to stop thinking about work. “If I’m writing … I think about my book almost all the time except when I’m running or knitting,” she has said. I have experienced something similar: when I run, the running “takes over” and prevents me ruminating on problems and searching for solutions (at least consciously). Walking, meanwhile, as Rebecca Solnit so neatly puts it, is “thinking at three miles per hour”.

Entertaining kids? You’ll need inspiration … Photograph: PeopleImages/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Psychological factors undoubtedly play a role in the link between creativity and movement. Exercise – be it a bona fide workout or a walk around the block – physically takes you away from what you were doing, facilitating what’s called “state transition”. “The movement itself, and a change in perspective, can help foster new thoughts and ideas,” says Rominger. In 2023, he and colleagues studied the impact of everyday activity on creative thinking, using accelerometers (devices that detect movement) to monitor daily activity levels, and a phone app to test creativity at random intervals. “Our results showed that the number of steps people had taken in the five minutes prior to the creative task was related to greater originality of ideas,” he says.

Some have theorised that exercise makes us more creative because it makes us feel better. Surprisingly, this hasn’t been borne out by the research.

For example, Chen’s study found that stair climbing did not boost mood, even though it did enhance divergent thinking. There is even some evidence to suggest that negative emotions, such as anger and stress, can sharpen creative thinking, particularly when problem solving and evaluating ideas.

Many of the studies examining the link between creativity and physical activity take place indoors, where variables can be tightly controlled and monitored. Yet in the real world, exercise frequently takes place out in the fresh air, where there are trees, birds and clouds. I have written about the effect of green and pleasant surroundings on brain function before, and I would have wagered that the presence of nature during physical activity would have a role in enhancing creativity.

That was what Marily Oppezzo, now a behavioural and learning scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, expected to find when she compared the impact on creativity of walking on a treadmill with walking outdoors. The cleverly designed experiment also compared walking with sitting still inside and outside, and with being pushed in a wheelchair outdoors (to delineate between the effects of being outside and moving the body). “I thought walking outside would blow everything out of the water but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results,” she says. Walking, whether it was inside or outside, raised subjects’ creative output by 60% on average, compared with sitting still, regardless of location. This demonstrates once again that the act of movement itself is the crucial factor.

All the experts I interviewed for this article stressed that there’s still a lot we don’t know about the relationship between creativity and exercise. Is simple, repetitive movement better than something more complex? How long do the effects on creativity last before they wear off? Why doesn’t exercise seem to benefit the more evaluative aspects of creative thinking? The research is ongoing. But for Chen, what we do know has real value and should be leveraged.

“Short active breaks at schools and in the workplace can rejuvenate people’s creativity and problem-solving,” he says. “And for those who find the concept of achieving ‘fitness’ too challenging, knowing that just a few minutes of walking, or other low-intensity physical activity, can enhance creative thinking should make getting up to move seem more worthwhile.” Now, where’s that dog of mine gone?

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