The Creative Brain On Exercise

For artists, entrepreneurs, and any other driven creators, exercise is a powerful tool in the quest to help transform the persistent uncertainty, fear, and anxiety that accompanies the quest to create from a source of suffering into something less toxic, then potentially even into fuel.

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For more than thirty years, Haruki Murakami has dazzled the world with his beautifully crafted words, most often in the form of novels and short stories. But his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008) opens a rare window into his life and process, revealing an obsession with running and how it fuels his creative process.

An excerpt from a 2004 interview with Murakami in The Paris Review brings home the connection between physical strength and creating extraordinary work:

When I'm in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit, and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it's a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

Murakami is guided by what the great scholars, writers, thinkers, and creators of ancient Greece knew yet so many modern-day creators have abandoned.

The physical state of our bodies can either serve or subvert the quest to create genius. We all know this intuitively. But with rare exceptions, because life seems to value output over the humanity of the process and the ability to sustain genius, attention to health, fitness, and exercise almost always take a back seat.That's tragic. Choosing art over health rather than art fueled by health kills you faster; it also makes the process so much more miserable and leads to poorer, slower, less innovative, and shallower creative output.

As Dr. John Ratey noted in his seminal work Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008), exercise isn't just about physical health and appearance. It also has a profound effect on your brain chemistry, physiology, and neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to literally rewire itself). It affects not only your ability to think, create, and solve, but your mood and ability to lean into uncertainty, risk, judgment, and anxiety in a substantial, measurable way, even though until very recently it's been consistently cast out as the therapeutic bastard child in lists of commonly accepted treatments for anxiety and depression.

In 2004 the esteemed New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a review of treatments for generalized anxiety disorder that noted thirteen pharmaceuticals, each with a laundry list of side effects, but nothing about exercise. In response, NEJM published a letter by renowned cardiologists Richard Milani and Carl Lavie, who had written more than seventy papers on the effect of exercise on the heart, eleven of them focused on anxiety. That letter criticizes the original article for omitting exercise, which, the writers note, "has been shown to lead to reductions of more than 50 percent in the prevalence of the symptoms of anxiety. This supports exercise training as an additional method to reduce chronic anxiety."

Ratey details many data points on the connection between exercise and mind-set; among them the following:

  • A 2004 study led by Joshua Broman-Fulks of the University of Southern Mississippi that showed students who walked at 50 percent of their maximum heart rates or ran on treadmills at 60 to 90 percent of their maximum heart rates reduced their sensitivity to anxiety, and that though rigorous exercise worked better. "Only the high intensity group felt less afraid of the physical symptoms of anxiety, and the distinction started to show up after just the second exercise session."
  • A 2006 Dutch study of 19,288 twins and their families that demonstrated that those who exercised were "less anxious, less depressed, less neurotic, and also more socially outgoing."
  • A 1999 Finnish study of 3,403 people that revealed that those who exercised two to three times a week "experience significantly less depression, anger, stress, and 'cynical distrust.'"

Ratey points to a number of proven chemical pathways, along with the brain's neuroplastic abilities, as the basis for these changes, arguing that exercise changes the expression of fear and anxiety, as well as the way the brain processes them from the inside out.

Studies now prove that aerobic exercise both increases the size of the prefrontal cortex and facilitates interaction between it and the amygdala. This is vitally important to creators because the prefrontal cortex, as we discussed earlier, is the part of the brain that helps tamp down the amygdala's fear and anxiety signals.

For artists, entrepreneurs, and any other driven creators, exercise is a powerful tool in the quest to help transform the persistent uncertainty, fear, and anxiety that accompanies the quest to create from a source of suffering into something less toxic, then potentially even into fuel.

This is not to suggest that anyone suffering from a generalized or trait (that is, long-term) anxiety disorder avoid professional help and self-treat with exercise alone. People who suffer from anxiety should not hesitate to seek out the guidance of a qualified mental health-care professional. The point is to apply the lessons from a growing body of research on the therapeutic effect of exercise on anxiety, mood, and fear to the often sustained low-level anxiety that rides organically along with the uncertainty of creation. Anyone involved in a creative endeavor should tap exercise as a potent elixir to help transform the uncomfortable sensation of anxiety from a source of pain and paralysis into something not only manageable but harnessable.

Exercise, it turns out, especially at higher levels of intensity, is an incredibly potent tool in the quest to train in the arts of the fear alchemist.

Still, a large number of artists and entrepreneurs resist exercise as a key element in their ability to do what they most want to do—make cool stuff that speaks to a lot of people. In the case of artists, I often wonder if that resistance is born of a cultural chasm that many artists grew up with, where jocks were jocks, artists were artists, hackers were hackers, and never the twain would meet. For more sedentary solo creators, historical assumptions about who exercises and who doesn't can impose some very real limits on a behavior that would be very beneficial on so many levels. On the entrepreneur side, the excuse I've heard (and used myself) over and over is "I'm launching a damn company and my hair's on fire. I don't have time to work out." The sad truth is that if we make the time to exercise, it makes us so much more productive and leads to such improved creativity, cognitive function, and mood that the time we need for doing it will open up and then some—making us so much happier and better at the art of creation, to boot.

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Excerpted from Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields by arrangement with Portfolio Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright (c) 2011 by Jonathan Fields.

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[Image: Flickr user Thomas Hawk]

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  • Jasyn Savage

    As a personal trainer and coach, I constantly see clients stressed out from work but find the benefits of exercise fundamental for dealing with that stress. In saying this there are a huge percentage of people who start out an exercise regime but then fail to see it through because they are to impatient or don't have enough of that burning desire within them to achieve, and in turn do not make the time for even a small amount of physical activity. 
    This article proves that exercise is hugely important for balancing out what has now become a high pressured lifestyle and shows that taking the time to even do a small amount of exercise can increase productivity.Maybe more companies should look at what China does - taking regular structured breaks with a group of employees and going through basic exercises, they not only have the highest statistic of people living the longest but also some of the best productivity in the world. Jasyn Savage (CEO - Bodies In Action Ltd)

  • Justin

    Um, if I can be a bit contrarian, I can honestly say that as someone who does yoga and has a purple belt in kung fu that exercise alone may be helpful for keeping your demons at bay, but it won't slay them. I can honestly say that even as I watch what I eat and keep physically active, I face as many setbacks and make as many mistakes as I used to. It is only now that I am beginning to learn that physical health is transitory, and WILL be taken away from you, no matter how hard you work to keep this from happening. Cultivating inner peace is what matters.

  • Joseph

    Fantastic article. Huge fan of Murakami so it's cool that he was used as an example but anyway, I have to say that when I'm running in the morning, not only does it provide me with the energy for the rest of the day, but I typically find when I have a real good run, I also somehow come up with more creative ideas

  • frank thomas

    As I really liked this post I wrote my thoughts on it down on the adidas Group blog which we launched yesterday. We tested the blog internally first  which is why the post is public just now.
    All the best.

  • Phil Gayter

    Absolutely true. I was always a strange fish. Growing up at school in Manchester (UK) I was a painter and nationally ranked runner. The two worlds were odd fellows but complemented each other in every way.
    As a professional creative, the benefits are there to be seen. My training for physical exertion allowed me to learn the benefits of "digging deep," and this overflowed into my creative work. I presented some ideas to the (then) CEO of Coca Cola--a campaign that was radical for the company.
    He saw the work--liked the work--and proclaimed: "What drugs were you on to do this!"
    I just said: "I'm a runner."

  • La Vonda Staples

    The best kind of exercises which fuel my creative brain are dancing and walking.  When I dance I try to put my mind in each part of my body and will it to do what I'm thinking.  In order to not fall into patterns I watch dances from all over the world.  Even though I'm not a good dancer this practice allows me to connect with my physical self.  Physical propels mental.  Lifting heavy weights is how I rid myself of negativity.  I pick one combination exercise, such as a bench press, and I keep raising the weight by five pounds until I reach my limit.  By the time I hit the wall, my negative thoughts dissipate. 

  • Shari

    I write my best articles while on my bike or the stairclimber. I always keep a notebook nearby to capture it all!

  • Sangeeta Barde

    I completely agree with the author. As an exercise freak I have always observed this happening. Exercise keeps me in a state of dynamism & constantly keeps me challenging my own limits. 

  • Julie

    Awesome article. Very good read. I am in my early twenties and have developed pretty bad anxiety recently. My treatment is an unprocessed diet--95% of calories are from fruits and vegetables-- and I work out daily. But no gym for me! I cycle, run on the beach and do "yoga" (I mix it with light weightlifting). At work, I have a stability disc for my chair, a medicine ball and take walks during my breaks. I've recently gotten a promotion and I am more temperate, concentrate better, work harder, am more creative. Exercise helps me tremendously. I experience many ramifications if I am not physically active.

  • David Lavenda

    totally agree. With 7 startups under my belt, I can vouch for the fact that the best ideas come from exercising at the gym. Almost nothing ever comes from scheduled 'brainstorm sessions.'

  • J. Calderon

    Great read on a variety of levels!
    As one of many who help people with their own problems; it's great to read a refresher thought for those of us who help and refresh others!

  • Andrew Norris

    know this for time, I do 10,000 miles a  year on the mountain bike and regularly push 205 heart rate! 

    (but been down for 3 weeks now when I came off, still feeling pretty good though)

    OMEGA 3 and zinc have been proven very effective (mood and brainwork)  and a good diet generally. talking therapy is great too for the mood and also well proven. 

    And meditation.

    Another tip: Try to get omega 3 and zinc from natural sources (e.g. ground flaxseed and pumpkin seeds) as they contain addition co factors that help them work better than mere supplements. co liver oil contains dangerous amounts of vitamin A not to mention toxic mentals from the sea.    

    The people that did that study I suspect are funded by big param companies, what else could explain which a shocking emission!  

  • Elizabeth

    I think you've hit on two essential gaps here: artists v. jocks and "not enough time" to exercise. I see and talk with so many people who comment on what great shape I'm in, and how they wish they had time. But I make time. I take an hour 3-4 times a week and work out with weights or run. And those 4 hours make me more productive during my 40 hrs. I think people are loath to give up their TV time!!! Luckily my husband and I were both artists and jocks, we leaped that chasm. I recently wrote a post on my blog about how starting a social media campaign applies the same principles as developing a great get-in-shape plan. This article is the perfect companion for my post, great minds think alike!!! You can read my post here:

  • Andrew Norris

    exactly how can people say you take all that time when they watch hours of tv while feeling tired! 

  • Dr. Marc Tinsley

    Physical activity, including exercise, has so many benefits. We are designed to move and wired to be active. When we are sedentary, we're simply not at our best.

    When I speak to schools, businesses, and associations about doing things to energize their office and be more productive, creativity is one of the benefits of physical activity that surprises people the most.

    Do yourself a favor and and allow time for physical activity throughout your day.

  • Dana McMahan

    I love this -- I often feel like my worlds of food writing  and powerlifting are too far apart, but doh! Of course the exercise makes me a better writer. Thanks for pointing out what should have been obvious.

  • Maryanne Caruso

    This is a great article. As someone who was gainfully employed with the same company for 12 years and downsized last December, exercise - specifically cycling - is helping to minimize the anxiety and fear associated with unemployment. It minimizes stress, and keeps me motivated and mentally tough regardless of all the rejection and radio silence that comes along with a job search.   

  • John Sarter

    I can't even begin to express the benefits for me personally of intense exercise for stress relief, mood elevation, and revival of my spirit and competitive drive... Without it I would have been lost by the wayside many years ago, and many times over! The time taken  to "Play Hard" translates at least tenfold to my motivation and the return of energy is exponential... Pesonal perpetual energy on a spiritual and physical level!

  • Nathalie Lussier

    This is great as a reminder that stepping away from work / the computer is even more productive than just trying to "focus harder". Love it. :)

  • David Robbins

    Good article-

    As an entrepreneur and CEO for 20 years, I use exercise as my stress management. I can go from the top of my head about to blow off to euphoria in 20 minutes. I was setback 3 years ago by two heart valve transplants. I am starting another company and beginning to hike and run again. For me, it's the only therapeutic stress reducer that I have found!

    David Robbins