In my book Rest, I talked at length about the surprising research suggesting the virtues of physical activity for creatives. There’s lots of biographical data (or anecdotes) that indicate that exercise and sports help people be better problems-solvers, and have longer more sustainable careers. The Bernice Eiduson longitudinal study of southern California scientists, for example, found that the highest-performers (including four Nobel laureates) were more physically active than their less professionally accomplished peers.
Now, the New York Times’ Gretchen Reynolds writes about a new study about the relationship between physical activity and creativity that comes at the subject from another angle:
the researchers gathered 79 healthy adults, gave them activity trackers for five days and then asked them to visit the lab and let their imaginations soar, conceiving new uses for car tires and umbrellas and finishing partial drawings. The researchers then rated their output on its originality and other measures. The volunteers also completed standard questionnaires about their moods.
They wanted to understand the relationship between creativity and exercise, but also disentangle whether exercise affected creativity by improving mood (which some people had argued), or improved it regardless of mood.
So what did they find?
[T]he correlations between activity, creativity and moods were slight. People could walk often and be quite creative but not especially happy, suggesting that it was not improved moods that most influenced creativity. It was moving.
The findings point to “an association between creativity and physical activity in everyday life,” says Christian Rominger, a professor of psychology at the University of Graz and the study’s lead author.
The also found that “the most active of the volunteers proved to be also the most creative, especially if they often walked or otherwise exercised moderately.”
Here’s the abstract:
Previous (predominantly) laboratory studies reported positive relations of physical activity (or everyday bodily movement) with executive functioning, some even showed effects on creative thinking. Furthermore, positive-activated affect was found to be positively associated with everyday bodily movements and creativity. The mechanisms, however, underlying these relationships are poorly understood. The aim of this study was twofold: Firstly, we investigated whether everyday bodily movement was associated with creative performance. Secondly, we examined if positive-activated affect may mediate the association between bodily movement and creative performance. In a sample of 79 participants everyday bodily movement was recorded during five consecutive days using accelerometers. Creativity in the figural and verbal domain was assessed with performance tests, along with self-reported positive-activated affect as a trait. Findings revealed that creativity, positive-activated affect, and everyday bodily movement were associated with each other. However, positive-activated affect did not mediate the association between everyday bodily movement and creative performance. The pattern of findings argues for shared variance between bodily movement and creativity (fluency and originality) that is largely independent from variations in positive-activated affect.