Jump-Starting Mental Efforts and Creativity through Physical Exercise—Does It Really Work?

spinningSeveral times a week, I head to the gym for bicycle spinning class. At eight in the morning, I’m not hepped up about vigorous exercise, but after participating for years in this stationary bike effort, I’m happy to do so, particularly if I’m wrestling with a knotty problem in my writing.

Recently I mounted the machine with two major issues nagging me. One was a cliff-hanger for my work-in-progress (working title, Never Retreat) when the heroine is separated from the hero during a flash flood and comes to realize her deep feelings for him. The other was a series of critical scenes and character development to strengthen conflict for a mainstream novel. I walked out an hour later, well on my way to solving both.

How did I accomplish this while supposedly pedaling my heart out? I’ve found that mental activity can result from physical, especially if the exercise is routine, meaning I don’t have to be alert to oncoming cars or snapping dogs. Imagination blossoms and ideas flow, free from my internal critic. I suspect I enter an “alpha state,” a condition that fosters creativity and ideas. This also can occur when I take walks. (See my essay in the Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/The-Home-Forum/2009/0306/p19s05-hfes.html) Some people claim to unlock their minds through yoga or meditation, mental puzzles, playing golf.

On its own, the attribute of creativity is over-rated. It’s essential to producing new works of art, raising a child, cooking an excellent and unusual meal, discovering new paths in science, taking photos, or inventing a computer game or machine. But it’s useless without the additional qualities of determination and hard work, native talents, education, and luck.

Still it’s useful to know how to jumpstart your brain out of frustrating, fruitless ruts. If you’re struggling with a personal problem, a conundrum at work, or an approaching challenge at work or school, rather than pushing yourself harder, harder, harder, try taking an exercise break. You may find yourself able to return refreshed and productive.