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How movement boosts creativity

Looking for inspiration? Science suggests you won’t find it sat staring at a blank page. We explore the link between exercise and creativity.


Frederick Nietzsche was a vocal advocate. Steve Jobs was a fan. Arianna Huffington practices it daily. Haruki Murakami even wrote a book about it. Throughout history, some of the world’s best-known thinkers and entrepreneurs have used movement to stimulate creativity. 


As Murakami puts it in his book, What I talk about when I talk about running, “physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” Yet many of us who are focused on being creative at work use this very work as a reason not to exercise. So can sacrificing some precious desk time for movement outdoors really improve creative results? 



What the science says

That exercise can benefit the mind, relieving stress for example, is widely recognized. In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John Ratey digs deeper into how the benefits of exercise extend far beyond physical performance. Ratey discusses the impact of movement on the chemistry and physiology of the brain. He highlights that exercise can increase neuroplasticity – the ability to create new neural connections. This appears to be the link to enhancements in your mood and decision-making capabilities, but what about creativity specifically? 


Research on the link between movement and creativity largely focuses on aerobic activity (like running) or anaerobic activity (like sprinting). Studies have shown that aerobic exercise can increase the speed of concurrent cognition (multitasking), and that an intense workout can improve memory performance, and potentially creativity, for some time afterwards – good news if you like your lunch runs fast. 


Perhaps even better news is that it doesn’t take an all-out run to help get the creative juices flowing. Nietzsche once said that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” an assertion that’s now supported by science. 


In the brilliantly titled paper, Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford University used four varying methods to assess the impact of walking on creativity. Their results showed a link between movement and improved creativity each time, both during exercise and shortly after. Whether done outdoor or indoor, they conclude that “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.”



Finding inspiration offline

The science backs up claims made by some of the world’s brightest thinkers – movement means new ideas, whether it’s running or walking. 


And while there are rewards to be gained by moving indoors, getting out from under those fluorescent lights and away from a screen compounds the benefits of moving with the positive effects of being outside


One study showed that really immersing yourself in nature can have a significant impact on creativity. After just four days in the wild away from technological interruptions, the subjects of the study boosted their problem-solving skills by 50%. 


Intrigued by these insights? Here are four ways to make the most of them:



Head for the door

The best way to start thinking outside of the box is getting out of your box-shaped office building or apartment and into the outdoors. Moving in the fresh air means fresh perspectives and switches our brains on for new stimuli. By getting outside for a regular run or walk, we don’t only get the aforementioned creativity boost from movement, but also see and hear new things, meet new people and watch how others interact. As Steve Jobs said, “The broader our understanding of human experience, the more dots we will have to connect, the more creative our ideas will be.”


Head into the wild

Heading out the door is great. Heading into the great outdoors is even better. Where the mobile reception ends is where additional benefits begin. 


While our devices make us more productive in some ways, they sap our creative skills in others. The constant interruptions and so-called “task switching” triggered by email and instant messaging can reduce our attention spans and stop us reaching a focused and productive state of flow. 


Remember the study mentioned above about the benefits of going off the grid? That same paper describes getting away from the pinging in your pocket as a key component of “Attention Restoration Theory (ART). ART suggests that exposure to nature can restore prefrontal cortex-mediated processes – in other words, it turns your brain back up to full power. 


There’s a reason that Bill Gates takes “think weeks” away from the office to read and reflect. He is also known to head into the wilderness, staying in cabins in places like Storfjord, Norway, which combine comfort for reading with easy access to raw, unspoilt landscapes. And, according to the research, that’s how great minds become even greater. 



Hold meetings on the move

On average, Americans sit for 10 hours a day. Many of us spend much of this time at work. While we need some desk time to get things done, transitioning meetings from the office to the outdoors is a way to gain the health- and creativity-boosting benefits of getting on our feet. 


Walking meetings are another creativity hack that Steve Jobs endorsed, and it’s supported by the previously mentioned Stanford study too. One experiment found that you are twice as likely to come up with a creative solution while moving than you are sat down. 


LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner is another believer, saying in a post that “In addition to the obvious fitness benefits, this meeting format essentially eliminates distractions, so I find it to be a much more productive way to spend time.” Richard Branson also wrote a blog post extolling the benefits, and it’s rumored that Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp was brokered during several walking meetings between Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum. It seems walking the talk is kind of a big deal. 


Make sure you’re always ready to move

What you wear also affects how you think. In the same way that researchers have shown how wearing a doctor’s coat increased attention span, wearing shoes and gear engineered for movement can only help you get out there. That can mean lightweight, comfortable footwear to take you further or breathable, moisture-wicking clothing that means you don’t have to worry about working up a sweat on your moving meeting. It might also be weather- and waterproof gear that gets you out into the wilderness to go off the grid in any conditions. In short, the right wardrobe can help makes movement an instant idea-boosting option that’s always open. 


While the physical benefits of moving more are well established, the impact of movement on creativity are just coming to light. Don’t wait around for your next big idea – get out there and get after it.


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