Moving into flow: 5 ways physical activity boosts your creative energy

Illustration for blog post about moving into flow
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Ever notice how your “Eureka” moments usually happen when you’re on the go and out of the office? It’s hard to find flow in a cubicle. And there’s a good reason for that. You’re sitting in a box. Next time you’re feeling stuck and your mind seems as blank as your screen, remember this: studies show body movement can unlock creative ways of thinking—no matter what kind of problem you’re trying to solve. Here’s how to use physical activity to get out of a rut and get your imagination in motion.

Talk with your hands

Body movements not only help us process old ideas, they help us create new ones. In fact, the simple act of gesturing with your hands can actually change your mind. Research shows that gestures facilitate new learning and evoke imagery, not only in the minds of the listener, but in the mind of the speaker as well. There’s even a field of research called “embodied creativity” devoted to studying how movement, gesture, and autonomic functions can shape our thoughts.

Try this: Next time you’re brainstorming, record a voice memo of yourself thinking out loud. On the first take, keep your hands in your pockets and close your eyes. On the second take, consciously use hand gestures as you speak. Compare the results to see if the gestures helped you generate more ideas or articulate your thoughts more eloquently.

Brainstorm in cursive

The expression “go with the flow” is thought to have originated as a metaphor for the movement of tides. Everyone has times when their energy is ebbing. So how do you ride it out until the flood returns? In their 2012 study, “Fluid Movement and Creativity,” Michael L. Slepian and Nalini Ambady note that “cognitive scientists describe creativity as fluid thought.” They found that fluid arm movement led to enhanced creative generation, remote associations, and cognitive flexibility.

Try this: Ditch the digital world for a while. Power down your devices and pick up a notepad. Set a timer for five minutes, and free associate ideas. Follow your first thoughts to find out where they’ll go—just keep the pen moving. You might be tempted to backtrack and perfect every phrase. Don’t. Just enjoy a few minutes of discovering ideas you didn’t know were hiding in your subconscious.

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Exercise a better mindset

When you go outside for a quick jog or bike ride, do you ever feel a major upswing in your mood immediately after? Aside from the extra oxygen your workout provides, exercise boosts the production of endorphins, the neurotransmitters known to reduce stress and anxiety. But the benefits of exercise go way beyond mood improvement. Exercise affects brain chemistry, physiology, and neuroplasticity, and makes it easier for you to overcome uncertainty and take more risks. It can also help put you in a creative frame of mind.

Try this: Author Haruki Murakami says his daily regimen of running becomes a “form of mesmerism” that allows him to “reach a deeper state of mind.” He’s convinced that repetition is a key factor. So choose some form of exercise you like enough to do every day. Set aside 20 minutes before you start working, and make it as much a part of your routine as responding to email.

Improvise your next move

Bringing more movement into your daily life doesn’t have to mean sprinting on a treadmill, swimming laps, or spin class at the gym. Dr. Peter Lovatt, founder of the Dance Psychology Lab at University of Hartfordshire, discovered that dancing can actually help strengthen problem-solving skills. His research shows that improvised dance enables people with Parkinson’s disease to improve their divergent thinking skills. They theorized that dancing helps Parkinson’s patients create new neural pathways that work around blockages formed by a depletion in dopamine.

Try this: Studies show our creative energy starts to wane after 90 minutes. So instead of staring out a window when you hit a creative wall, take a break every hour and a half. Stand up, stretch your legs, and practice your Nae Nae ‘til you’re ready to get back to work.

Imagine new situations

Over the course of your lifetime, regular exercise helps increase the number of healthy young hippocampal cells. That’s important for creative problem solvers because the hippocampus is the part of the brain involved in improving our ability to imagine new situations. To envision the future, your brain uses the same neural machinery it uses to recall the past. This finding led researchers to the notion of the prospective brain. That’s the concept that the brain relies on stored information to imagine and simulate possible future events. This resonates with us, because we’re big believers in the notion that stored data can fuel new ideas.

Try this: When you sense that you’re dwelling on a dormant idea, rearrange stuff on your desktop. This ridiculously simple act may well jolt you out of analysis paralysis and send a signal to your brain that it’s time to stop grinding and start playing.

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