How Exercise Makes You a Better Writer
Many people have this image of writers as creatures continually at work. They might imagine us hunched over notebooks, cramped hands gripping a pen, or—the modern version—stooped over a keyboard awaiting the inevitable arrival of carpal tunnel.
There's some truth to this, sure. But this isn't the reality for many writers. And it certainly isn't the way anyone should live their life.
Human beings were meant to spend the majority of their time moving. Biology has made this clear, which is why productivity and creativity are inextricably linked with exercise.
Let's explore this connection a little bit.
First, A Short History of my Relationship With Exercise
If you don't want to read a late-blooming exercise enthusiast evangelizing the power of movement, feel free to skip this section.
Like most little kids, I was relatively active growing up. More specifically, I frequently went on walks with my dad and the dog in the woods after school.
But once I hit middle school, that all stopped. I became a less grotesque version of the writer stereotype described above. I was highly sedentary and spent most of my free time on the computer.
I first decided that I wanted to start exercising after college. I felt adrift. I wasn't sure how my college dreams fit into my post-Bachelor's world or how to even start the journey down a career path. Partially for my health but mostly to start feeling some sense of purpose, I began going to the gym.
I started small: Two trips a week with short, 20-30 minute bouts on the elliptical. I raised my intensity and frequency, landing on around 1 hour 3 days per week.
A couple of years later, I found that going to the gym was actually becoming an obstacle on my fitness journey. In response, I started trying to work out at home.
Exercising at home eliminated a lot of excuses. It was easier to increase my frequency (there was no "I don't feel like driving to the gym today") and intensity (there was no "I don't want to make noises like that in public").
As I began to see more dramatic results, exercise became something I craved rather than an obligation.
I loved the changes I saw in my body, sure. But my authentic love of movement truly blossomed when I noticed that my mood was better, my mind was clearer, and my energy levels were higher.
Since 2015, I've consistently maintained an exercise routine that works for me. I make it a priority to do some form of movement—usually weight training or HIIT following free YouTube videos—anywhere from 3-5 days a week. Since moving to Asheville, one of those days consists of a long hike, typically anywhere between 1-7 hours long.
This switch in mindset toward exercise hasn't just been beneficial for my body, but also for my writing practice.
Unnecessary backstory? Maybe. But I think my experience allows me to see the effect that exercise has had on my creative process in higher contrast.
I hope these insights are helpful and convince you to start moving for creativity or even just reorient your mindset around exercise.
Exercise Enhances Overall Brain Function
There's an innate desire among some people to keep the creative process cordoned off in a place of mystery. This camp believes that creativity is an effervescent thing that can never be fully understood or observed by science.
Well, I'm not one of those people.
When it comes to studying the human brain, we're still exploring an ocean on a wood raft, so to speak. But all current research points to exercise as a key component of maintaining neuroplasticity—the brain's ability to reorganize its neural connections in response to new experiences—and enhancing overall cognitive function.
Amazingly, exercise affects how your brain functions on a cellular and even molecular level.1
By flooding the brain with feel-good chemicals and BDNF, a protein associated with neuron function, it facilitates the creation of new neural connections and the reorganization of existing neural pathways.2 Exercise is even thought to even delay the onset and advancement of brain conditions like Alzheimer's Disease.1
More specifically, exercise is thought to positively impact the following:
Pattern separation: This is the ability to distinguish something novel from something similar that you've already seen before. It's a key function of episodic memory.3
Attention: Exercise has been found to help individuals with ADHD focus more easily, to the point where exercise is being incorporated into some treatment regimens for those diagnosed with the disorder.4
Executive function: This refers to the higher-level command of other brain functions, including the ability to initiate action, adapt to unexpected changes, control impulses , plan, and organize. Exercise has been shown to enhance executive function in a variety of ways. In fact, even mild exercise can produce a helpful executive function "boost."5
Memory: Some studies have shown a positive impact on many different kinds of memory. However, across the board, current opinions on if and how exercise affects different types of memory are mixed.3
The vast majority of the increased cognitive capabilities listed above affect your ability to write well. Organization, memory, and attention are all essentials for any writing practice.
Interested in what parts of the brain are activated when you write? Take a peek at this quick and dirty guide published by a former psychology student at the University of Waterloo.
Exercise Boosts Your Self-Esteem
Writing is hard work for your mind.
This is especially true when writing creatively. When I'm not sitting down to accomplish a specific goal and just tell a story that I feel is important, it becomes a lot more personal.
This can require intensive self-critiquing or self-exploration—both of which can be mentally and emotionally exhausting.
Movement can help you overcome—or at least counteract—the self-esteem traps that our mind sometimes sets for us when we spend an extended period of time in an autocritical space.
Studies point to movement's positive effects on self-esteem. While some postulate that this self-esteem boost comes from decreased BMI and raised levels of perceived physical fitness, other studies find these effects are much broader and stem from the participation in physical activity itself.6
My personal opinion? Exercise gives you a sense of accomplishment that feels tangible and real. You finished something and you gave it your all (or at least some form of energy).
That feeling is hard to replicate unless you've wrapped up an article or project that you're proud of—and that simply may not happen as frequently as we'd like.
While I'm curious about the topic, I ultimately don't care why exercise makes me feel better about myself. I just know that it does. This reduces the amount of time I spend caught up in the kind of self-doubt that leads to reduced productivity and creative output.
Exercise Helps You Sleep Better
This one is kind of a no-brainer so I won't dwell on it.
Exercise helps you get higher quality sleep and more of it.7
Anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter knows that sleep is important for cognitive function.
When you don't sleep, your ability to focus pretty much tanks. Focus is obviously essential for writing well.
Exercise = easier time sleeping. More sleep = easier time writing.
Remember: Any Movement Is Better Than None At All
One thing I've really had to battle with—and sometimes still do—is the urge to avoid exercising if I don't think the workout I plan to do is "intense enough."
Sometimes I get into a toxic "what's the point?" mindset that I can't quite shake.
But here's the truth: Any exercise—whether it's a light walk, low impact cardio, an intense HIIT session, or a 12-mile hike—is beneficial. If you look through some of the studies referenced throughout this post, you'll notice that different exercise intensities produce similar (and sometimes even identical) benefits.
In short: Make it a priority to get out and move. You'll be happy that you did.
Do you have an exercise routine that helps you creatively or otherwise? Tell me about it! I'm always looking for new ways to enjoy movement.
Lin, Tzu-Wei, Sheng-Feng Tsai, and Yu-Min Kuo. “Physical Exercise Enhances Neuroplasticity and Delays Alzheimer’s Disease.” Brain Plasticity 4 (1), 2018: 95–110. doi:https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-180073.
Liu, Patrick Z, and Robin Nusslock. “Exercise-Mediated Neurogenesis in the Hippocampus via BDNF.” Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2018. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00052.
Suwabe, Kazuya, Kazuki Hyodo, Kyeongho Byun, Genta Ochi, Michael A Yassa, and Hideaki Soya. “Acute Moderate Exercise Improves Mnemonic Discrimination in Young Adults.” Hippocampus 27 (3), 2017: 229–34. doi:https://doi.org/10.1002/hipo.22695.
Rassovsky, Yuri, and Tali Alfassi. “Attention Improves During Physical Exercise in Individuals With ADHD.” Frontiers in Psychology 9, 2018. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02747.
Byun, Kyeongho, Kazuki Hyodo, Kazuya Suwabe, Genta Ochi, Yosuke Sakairi, Morimasa Kato, Ippeita Dand, and Hideaki Soya. “Positive Effect of Acute Mild Exercise on Executive Function via Arousal-Related Prefrontal Activations: An fNIRS Study.” NeuroImage 98, 2014: 336–45. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.04.067.
Zamani Sani, Seyed Hojjat , Zahra Fathirezaie, Serge Brand, Uwe Pühse, Edith Holsboer-Trachsler, Markus Gerber, and Siavash Talepasand. “Physical Activity and Self-Esteem: Testing Direct and Indirect Relationships Associated with Psychological and Physical Mechanisms.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 12, 2016: 2617–25. doi:https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S116811.
“How Exercise Affects Your Sleep.” Cleveland Clinic, 2020. November 7. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-exercise-affects-your-sleep/.