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.


Keeping My Balance, or the Strange Case of the Woman With a Toothbrush Lodged in Her Throat

Who’s the woman on the street corner lifting her leg to the front, side, back? Some urban looney? The victim of a new disease? No, I’m working to keep my balance.

I’m familiar with the hundreds, thousands, of experts and organizations who freely offer advice about achieving balance between work and family, mental and physical activities, spiritual and carnal desires. Stressed out? You need balance. Overweight or in poor condition? You need balance.

But another kind of balance is commanding attention in my life. It’s plain old body balance. Not falling down or over. Avoiding stumbles that send me tumbling to the floor. Being able to carry a tray of goodies without spilling.

Zumba dance class brought this concern front and center. Twenty years ago I could kick above my head without a thought, and a series of leg lifts like a Rockette was part of my routine. Then I realized that certain moves in Zumba routines are threatening me with disaster. These all relate to balance. Several quick thrusts alternating right and left limbs, even simply standing on one leg for a short period of time makes me shaky. Tremors run across my entire body, and my eyes cross as I try to remain vertical and stable. So I’m seeking ways to improve my balance.

Cars and pedestrians who pass me on my walks stare when they see me at a red light, for I’m exercising. Sometimes I practice when I’m stuck in line at the grocery store or post office. My latest effort, after reading advice from a 99year-old athlete, is to balance on one foot while I’m brushing my teeth. This is a true challenge, and I do worry my husband may find me one day with the electric toothbrush firmly lodged, but still vibrating, deep down my throat.

Another article with a trainer at the Y provided tips complete with photos in the Denver Post that I’ve tried to implement gradually. Start small with only a few inches of foot raising. Then add small weights or a ball to the routine. The pinnacle is perching on a stool or bar while holding barbells over your head.

I’ve been practicing semi-religiously for about three months with little improvement in sight. I’m getting so worried about losing my balance and injuring myself that it might be time to address the balances in my life concerning stress and worry. Once I do that, I’ll build up the courage to attempt the most challenging exercise: the half-ball, one-leg effort or Bosu ball. Just in case someday I have to traverse a road or hall with a surface constructed of globes, or I decide to join Cirque do Soleil.

Fit and Fitter

I’ve always hated exercise. If there’s a choice between vegging out on the couch or playing an exhilarating game of tennis, the couch wins every time. Except. . .except. . . I’ve exercised so much during my life, I now get withdrawal pains if I neglect fitness.

I think my revulsion came from my lack of athletic ability along with my small stature and my delayed physical maturation. I learned I’d never be better than anyone else at physical prowess, so I didn’t want to compete at all. Bodies male and female that consist of absolutely trim and toned musculature discourage me because I know I’ll never look like that.

Because I grew up during a time when children walked to school and activities, and recess and p.e. were part of the schedule, I had a basic level of fitness that’s stood me in good stead. Then came college where I fell in love with dancing. So about nine hours a week for four straight years, I pranced and shimmied, jerked and ponied with the best.

Since then, my husband and I have egged each other on to maintain a minimum level of exercise. He’s been more of an egger-on than I, but together we’ve jogged, walked, biked, lifted weights, and one hideous summer even hiked up mountains. We’ve been so consistent, I feel ill and depressed if we don’t move something somewhere several times a week.

Which brings me to my local YMCA. The people there who inspire me are the people who lack native talent or who have physical challenges. They put forth so much more effort and are dedicated far beyond the scope of the guy flexing his well defined biceps or the sculpted feminine version. The woman in my Zumba class who has cerebral palsy but lives and breathes every tune. The older man who’s suffered several falls and broken bones but appears regularly to work out in splints and casts.

Then there’s the fellow I spotted today. He’s near-blind (carries a white cane) and has other obvious physical abnormalities that make using equipment a supreme challenge. Yet there he was, striding on a treadmill, pulling on various weight-lifting machines. As I huffed and puffed through my mediocre routine, I was glad I’d suppressed my native reluctance and had chosen to come to the gym. My inspiration to keep up the habit was right in front of me.