Cardio can boost creativity—here’s how

Sway Brainpump Jocelynsands
Illustration by Jocelyn Sands

If you’ve remained fairly sedentary during the pandemic, I don’t blame you—it’s been a tough year, and with gyms being closed for several months, getting back into a fitness routine might throw off the rhythm you’ve fallen into.

However, if you feel unmotivated and stuck in a creative rut, exercise may help. And although running a few laps around a track won’t exactly turn you into Picasso, studies show that it can certainly help boost your creative drive.

Dr. Karin Olds, a neurologist and stroke medical director at Saint Luke’s Marion Bloch Neuroscience Institute, says pump-ing up the heart rate will increase cognition. “By exercising, you increase oxygen levels in your brain,” she says. “Oxygen is important for good brain function and will improve sleep hygiene, which is super important for optimal brain function.” She adds that this rise in the brain’s oxygen levels helps people better learn, manage stress, multitask and think creatively.

Multiple studies throughout the years have shown aerobic activity’s positive effect on the brain’s receptors. One study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that eighty-one percent of participants who walked on a treadmill before being given a divergent thinking test (which are often used to measure creative problem-solving skills—an example question is “What are all the uses of a paper clip?”) had an increased creative output than those who were sedentary before the test.

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Harvard professor and psychiatrist Dr. John J. Ratey deep-dives into the brain’s physiological functions and how they are affected by exercise. According to Ratey, during the resting phase after an exercise session, oxygen-rich blood flows from the exercised muscles back to the central nervous system—including the pre-frontal cortex, where executive function happens.

Saint Luke’s cardiologist and medical director of the Charles and Barbara Duboc Cardio Health and Wellness Center Dr. James O’Keefe studies preventive cardiology, among other specialties. He says that adding a competitive or social element to physical activity, like training for a 5K or joining a pickleball league, may translate into higher performance in other aspects of life.

“I think, in general, it’s great to have goals,” he says. “One of the most important things, if you’re exercising to improve mood or longevity, is that it has some social component to it.”

Creative Cardio

Some cardio-seekers are just fine running on a treadmill—it’s easy to track progress and tweak difficulty by increasing incline and speed. However, this can get old for many and make them less likely to stick to a cardio routine; hence the explosion in popularity of Peloton bikes and treadmills, where high-energy instructors and music create a unique experience for each workout.

Christina Larson, personal trainer and owner of His and Her Fitness in Leawood, offers a program at her gym called Creative Cardio, which she designed to spice up traditional cardio routines with heart-pumping exercises like ladder drills and kickboxing.

“It could be twenty to thirty minutes, depending on what the client needs for their goals,” Larson says. “It’s challenging, but you’re still capable of doing it. You have to be present or you’re not going to do it properly. When you are present, you’re able to get that calming, mental benefit along with the physical benefits.”

Categories: Health & Wellness, People