Movement and Creativity: Outside thinking for better creative health


Nietzsche wrote over a century ago to “sit as little as possible.” That one should “not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement—in which the muscles do not also revel.” Yet most creative jobs - whether they be in agencies or studios - do not involve free movement or open air. They usually involve sitting or standing inside for long periods of time. For years we’ve been told of the negative health effects of prolonged sitting: “it’s the new smoking.” But what about cognitive effects? Can our minds also get stuck when our bodies don’t move? Research shows that getting outside and moving our bodies can help us generate more ideas, better problem solve, and discover fresh, new ways of thinking. We clear our minds when we move our bodies. 

Writers, musicians, and artists have been known to extoll on the benefits of exercise. The painter Nathlie Provosty tells Artsy that she runs 3-5 times every week to keep an uncluttered mind. She explains “When I’m still, the mind can race, but when I run, I can step out of the mind and watch the thoughts.” This distancing of thoughts “creates a relationship of sequence, and I can get very clear on ideas and possibilities.” Thus, new perspectives.

An exercise routine, however, isn’t the only way to reap the creative benefits of outside movement. Simply going for a stroll around the block can help. Walking has been shown to be one of the best activities to boost creativity. Researchers at Stanford found that creative output increased by an average of 60% while walking. This was both for indoor and outdoor walking, but there is plenty of research that shows the positive effects of nature. Getting outside to move your body, walking or otherwise, presents different stimuli than the indoors - causing you to react and notice new things. 

This approach of “taking it outside” can be extended to group discussions and meetings as well. Back when I used to teach college literature, I would sometimes conduct classes outside on the campus lawn. We would walk to a good spot, sit in the grass, and discuss whatever the reading was for that day. Just getting outside and walking in the fresh air always seemed to bring fresh thinking. I also took a similar approach as a strategist at creative agencies. If I needed to brainstorm with a colleague, we took a walk. If I needed to check in with a member on my team, we would stroll to get coffee. Walking side by side with people tends to spark greater connection and more insightful conversation than sitting across from each other. 

So if you want to think differently, you got to do something different. Shake it up - move your body and change your environment. The world outside is much more dynamic - get out there and see how your thinking can be too. 

exerciseJulie Minchew