The Exercise-Creativity Link – How Physical Activity May Increase Creativity

Some woman post-workout with a dumbbell and water bottle

Creativity has become an important buzz word over the last many decades. We all want it, and employers seek it their employees. In fact, those who define themselves as creative have greater success on average. They also earn 17 percent more than those who don’t consider themselves creative. So naturally, our ears perk up when someone tells us they know how to increase creativity. And according to some recent research, it turns out that exercise and creativity look to be linked. All we need to do is invest in a little physical activity, and we can get our creative juices flowing.

It’s well known that physical activity is associated with a healthier brain in a number of ways. For one, exercise improves our mood, and it also enhances our memory. (For tips on how to improve memory, check out this Project Bold Life story.) Studies have also shown that it helps boost our problem-solving and critical thinking skills. But the link between exercise and creativity has been a little more difficult to prove. For one, the concept of creativity is a bit abstract and hard to quantify. Likewise, it’s hard to separate out how activity might increase creativity independently, unrelated to other brain effects. These are the issues researchers have struggled with for decades.

What Exactly Is Creativity?

Before talking about how exercise and creativity might be connected, let’s first define creativity. The Webster definition states that creativity is the ability to use your imagination and develop original ideas. This certainly applies, but a more expanded view of this concept might be helpful. Creativity requires an ability to see new ways of doing and looking at things. It demands an ability to transcend traditional perspectives and reconsider things afresh. If exercise and creativity are connected, then physical activity must somehow improve these skills.

From a brain perspective, neuroscientists relate the concept of creativity to three important functions of the brain. In order to increase creativity, we need to improve each one of these areas. These areas include our ability to focus our attention, our ability to imagine, and our ability to draw on past experiences. Individuals that enjoy high functional skills in all 3 areas tend to be the most creative. Thus, if exercise and creativity are linked, physical activity must boost these cognitive skills.

What Research Says About Exercise and Creativity

Over the course of the last few years, researchers are trying to better define how exercise and creativity are related. In 2012, researchers had study participants move their arms around in a fluid motion and then perform creative tasks. When compared to participants asked to move in a rigid manner, they were more creative and open to new ideas. In 2014, other researchers showed how walking could increase creativity. In this study, those asked to walk on a treadmill were 81 percent more creative when compared to seated participants. Why exercise and creativity were linked was not explained, but the association was clear.

Most recently, researchers in Austria took the experiment a little further. In their study, they tracked 79 adult participants with activity trackers over a 5-day period. They then tested their level of creativity by asking how they might use everyday objects in novel ways. As with the previous studies, higher levels of physical activity did increase creativity scores. But these investigators also looked to see if mood effects might account for the association. Interestingly, a positive and happy mood from exercising didn’t account for the higher creativity scores. This suggests that exercise and creativity are linked more directly.

How Exercise Might Lead to an Increase in Creativity

While the research described shows us that exercise and creativity are connected, it doesn’t say how. If happiness and mood effects don’t mediate these effects, then how does physical activity enhance our creative skills? The initial assumption is that exercise, especially aerobic activity, bathes our brains in more oxygen and nutrients. This indeed may be a factor. But other more specific effects on the brain have also been suggested. In other words, exercise may increase creativity by altering actual brain structure. While reducing stress and being happier doesn’t hurt, other changes may be more profound. (For more on different ways to reduce stress, check out this Project Bold Life story.)

A mom, dad and daughter doing a weak workout
Want to stoke your fires of creativity? The answer is to exercise!

In many other studies, physical activity is known to increase a substance called “Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor.” This substance stimulates the brain to grow new nerve cells, which could account for improved creativity. Exercise may also increase creativity by improving our ability to remember past experiences and relate them to the present. Brain imaging has proven that physical activity increases the size of the brain’s hippocampus. This area is highly important to memory, both old and new. Thus, for whatever reason, exercise promotes changes that support higher levels of creative thinking. With more brain cells and an enhanced memory, it’s understandable why creativity would flourish.

Creativity is Today’s Holy Grail

Without question, creative geniuses have existed throughout time. But interestingly, such individuals were not labeled creative until about a century ago. Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and many others were among the most creative people to ever live. But at the time, they weren’t called creatives. This term, and its value, has only become increasingly appreciated since the 1920. This is when the field of psychology began exploring the mind’s abilities in more depth. And with this exploration, they also began to look for things that might increase creativity. Despite the need for deeper understanding, it is now accepted that exercise and creativity are indeed linked.

Naturally, this is great news for all of us. In the past, creativity was believed to be something you either had or not. In essence, you were born with a great imagination or you weren’t. But this isn’t true, and research has increasing shown. Anyone can increase creativity and imagination through specific activities. And it now appears that exercise is one of those activities. We may not know how exercise and creativity are connected, but they are nonetheless. So, if you want to boost your creative side, invest in a weekly exercise routine. Science certainly suggests it will prove to be quite effective.

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Through timely and thoughtful articles, the book Project Bold Life: The Proven Formula to Take on Challenges and Achieve Happiness and Success, and other media, we deliver engaging content that educates, motivates and inspires you to live a Bold Life.
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