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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.

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Hawk]

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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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