It happens every time I run, yet it can still catch me by surprise. With my heart racing, sweat soaking my forehead, and a dope Kanye track cheering me on, I feel like I’m coming to the end of my physical ability to keep going. Fighting that part of myself that wants to just put on an episode of Riverdale and phone in the rest of my workout, I push aside the urge to quit and find a deeper, more primitive, and somehow stronger part of me. And then, like a mist clearing out as the sun rises, I feel a deep and abiding sense of power descend on my body and my brain. My creativity is unblocked, and a rush of new ideas and fresh approaches to current projects comes to me.
For a writer like myself, this rush is akin to a creative nirvana — but it only happens at the end of a brutal workout session. And if I don’t harness that creative energy immediately upon returning home, I find the ideas have evaporated as quickly as they appeared. It seems like common knowledge that exercise can benefit our productivity at work, as physical fitness and mental clarity have a well-established link. But after the last time endorphins bailed me out of a writing rut, I was curious: Could exercise be linked to a boost in creative energy too?
Personal trainer and fitness expert Darin Hulslander says yes. “Exercise, in all forms, can stimulate something called BDNF in our brains. It stands for Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor.” Studies into BDNF demonstrate that it plays a role in learning, memory, and mental health. But this area of clinical research has only been developing since 1982, which means that there’s a lot we’re still discovering about how BDNF stimulates our brains. Hulslander explains it this way: “[BDNF] helps keep our brains perky, fresh, and young. It targets the hippocampus, which is the part of our brain that helps us with forward thinking, learning, and… creative thoughts. The more we exercise, the more new cell growth we receive there, and thus the more BDNF we produce.”
The thing about exercise is that it allows us to hone in on a physical task, focusing our brains away from work that seems more cerebral. But by letting other areas of our consciousness be stimulated by the physical activity, we’re giving our brains something that feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s invigorating, and it sets the table for a visit from the muse.
Hulslander utilizes this effect with his creative clients in the Chicago area, and he breaks down how we can too. The key to successfully harnessing BDNF for creativity is timing your workouts so that they align with your creative work sessions. If you have a vocal audition, guitar lesson, or writing assignment that you need peak creative energy for, try not to let more than three hours elapse before you switch gears from working out your body to flexing your creative muscles.
The structure of your workout can also make a difference. Giving the example of lyric opera singers he works with, Hulslander lays out the formula he uses to light up different parts of the brain while his creative clients sweat it out: “We have a systematic process to get their brain going. We like to start with simple vision and balance exercises. We’ll do a few finger traces and also some single leg work, sometimes even combining them. We even do some toe touch tests… We’ve learned that this gets the brain and body in sync, also referred to as neuromuscular control.” Next comes joint work — exercise moves that focus on joint mobility, particularly at the ankles and shoulders.
After this warmup, Hulslander focuses on his clients’ core strength. “We like to make these dynamic, such as dead bugs [and] plank reaches.” He points out that these exercises challenge concentration, breathing, and stabilization, helping your brain focus and work hard in ways that simple stretches might not.
The last phase of Hulslander’s creativity-tapping workout involves cardiovascular exercise. “We spend the latter third of the workout using heart rate monitors and testing intensities. There is plenty of research that shows BDNF is increased by larger margins when exercise intensity is increased.” Leaving the cardio aspect for last gives you the opportunity to really push yourself during this portion of the workout, exhausting your body’s energy supply in hopes of tapping in to the creative supercharge that lies just beyond the point of physical exertion. Hulslander explains, “We use heart rate monitors to adjust this and keep them around 80-85 percent of their max for this exact reason.”
Once we engage with our bodies, giving them the attention and care of a good workout, our brains tend to remain poised for full creative engagement afterward. If you need to harness your creativity at work, getting your heart rate up early in the morning might give your brain that boost you’re after. And if your creative loves are more hobby-oriented, like DIY projects, crafting, or coming up with recipes, hitting the gym on your way home on the weekdays could prime your mind for inspiration.
Do you feel more creative after certain kinds of workouts? Tell us @BritandCo!
(Photo via Getty)