Exercise is Good for the Brain (Not to Mention the Body)

Gym and party space. Piedmont, California. Architecture by Studio Bergtraun Architects. Photography by Treve Johnson. From the book  Your Creative Haven  by Donald M. Rattner (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019).

Gym and party space. Piedmont, California. Architecture by Studio Bergtraun Architects. Photography by Treve Johnson. From the book Your Creative Haven by Donald M. Rattner (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019).

By Donald M. Rattner, Architect

We all can recite the multiple benefits of exercise. It jumpstarts good moods and protects us from heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, back pain, obesity, and certain kinds of diabetes. (Oh, and not to mention the uplifting effect it has on our butts.) But that it's also an express lane to creativity -- who knew? Whether your goal is to redecorate your living room, write a report at work, or paint a portrait, working out can deliver fresh ideas and inspiration almost by osmosis.

How come? “Physical activity gets your mind into the bodily experience, so that subconscious connections can pop up,” says Keith Sawyer, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Education of Washington University in St. Louis, who has done extensive research on creativity, and is the author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration.

“If you take breaks -- what I call idle time, ideally spent in solitary activities, such as walking, running, or biking your mind frees up to cross-fertilize so that when you return to intellectual pursuits, you’re far better at connecting ideas that at first glance dont seem to be obvious or even related.”

Home gym and basketball court. San Francisco, California. Architecture by Verner Architects. Photography by Matthew Millman. From the book  Your Creative Haven  by Donald M. Rattner (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019).

Home gym and basketball court. San Francisco, California. Architecture by Verner Architects. Photography by Matthew Millman. From the book Your Creative Haven by Donald M. Rattner (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019).

That's because exercise can literally change your brain to get your creative juices flowing. When you work out, your body flushes out cortisol, the hormone that helps trigger the “fight or flight” response when you're stressed, and which also shuts down brain functions for creativity and problem-solving, explains Pierce J. Howard, PhD, managing director of research and development at the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies in Charlotte, North Carolina, and author of The Owners Manual for The Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research.

Meanwhile, your pituitary gland releases endorphins, which can produce the feel-good runners high. Exercise also promotes the growth of new nerve cells and synapses through elevating levels of neurotrophins (a chemical that fosters the growth of new nerve endings) and by increasing oxygen in the blood, which helps provide mental energy.

Gym and party space. Piedmont, California. Architecture by Studio Bergtraun Architects. Photography by Treve Johnson. From the book  Your Creative Haven  by Donald M. Rattner (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019).

Gym and party space. Piedmont, California. Architecture by Studio Bergtraun Architects. Photography by Treve Johnson. From the book Your Creative Haven by Donald M. Rattner (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019).

You don’t have to be superfit or coordinated to reap the benefits. In her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp points to the example of Beethovens creative habit: “Although he was not physically fit, Beethoven would start each day with the same ritual: a morning walk during which he would scribble into a pocket sketchbook the first rough notes of whatever musical idea inevitably entered his head. Having done that, having limbered up his mind and transported himself into his version of a trance zone during the walk, he would return to his room and get to work.”

Ready for your creative boost? You might be just one long walk away from the powerhouse idea thats going to change your lifeor someone elses. Here are some ways to get started:

  1. Pick a low-concentration exercise that allows your mind to wander, such as brisk walking, swimming laps, hiking, or running. Sports, such as golf or tennis, or team activities, like soccer or basketball require too much strategizing or in-the-moment focus.

  2. Exercise for at least 30 minutes.

  3. Unless you and a partner plan to brainstorm on a shared project, exercise alone.

  4. Bring a notepad or tape recorder so you can jot down brilliant ideas.

  5. Get to work right after you return, while your creative juices are flowing. The shower can wait!

Donald M. Rattner, AIA is an architect exploring the intersection of creativity and physical space. His new book My Creative Space: How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation, is due out in October 2019 from Skyhorse Publishing. All photographs credited to the book are courtesy of the designers and photographers.

Donald Rattner