Norwegian Work Out
When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.Haruki Murakami, The Paris Review, Summer 2004
If you’ve noticed, a lot of my posts these past few weeks have been excavations into the link between creativity and something else. I wrote about the connection between writing and kindness, about productivity and the newness of a new year, and about words and the failure to make them sing.
Lately I’ve been having trouble finding my creative edge, so it seems best to explore what creativity even means. (A digression, a book recommendation: Creative Quest by Questlove. Trust me.) And because I honestly have no idea where to begin with that conundrum, I’ll instead sell the real estate of this blog post by listing one major thing that for me, creates a nimbler mind, ready — if not willing — to create: exercise.
In a decades-old interview with The Paris Journal, one of my all-time favorite novelists, Haruki Murakami, details his everyday routine while writing a book. He gets up before the sun rises, writes for several hours, then either runs or swims an obscene distance. Finally, he reads or listens to music before falling asleep. The next day at dawn, as moonlight melts to early sunshine, the process starts all over again. As if in a trance, his brain clicks into sharp focus, mentally jailed by the freeing structure of these circadian, creativity-spurring habits.
I won’t go into the studies that link exercise to better mental health; we all know how we feel after a rigorous sweat session, but more interesting to me is the relationship between exercise and creativity. In 2016, neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki explained in her book Healthy Brain, Happy Life that along with reducing stress, sharpening focus and enhancing productivity, exercise can actually make you more creative. (In neurological experiments, researchers often use the process of generating new ideas as a proxy for creativity.)
A 2014 Harvard Business Review article echoed a similar sentiment, citing a study by the Leeds Metropolitan University that examined the influence of daytime exercise on 200 employees at a large organization. Each employee was given access to the company gym and asked to self-report progress, tracking daily performance and output. The study found when an employee worked out during the day, “they reported managing their time more effectively, being more productive, and having smoother interactions with their colleagues. Just as important: They went home feeling more satisfied at the end of the day.”
BUT I DON’T LIKE WORKING OUT! Scream the cool kids from the back row. OK, I get it. That same year, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz, scientists at Stanford University, conducted a study to link non-aerobic walking with creativity. (Friedrich Nietzche once famously said, “Sit as little as possible. Do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement — in which the muscles do not also revel.) The work done by Oppezzo and Schwartz pretty much confirms Nietzche’s centuries-old suspicions. The scientists examined the effect of non-aerobic walking on the creative generation of new ideas (“creativity) then compared these results with sitting.
They found that a person walking — whether indoors on a treadmill in a room facing a blank wall or walking outdoors in the fresh air — produced twice as many creative responses compared to a person sitting down, one of the experiments found.
“I thought walking outside would blow everything out of the water, but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results, which surprised me,” Oppezzo said. Even more interesting, the scientists discovered that in the participants who walked, creative juices and idea-generation continued to happen even when that person sat back down after the walk. (There you go, friends. No need to do spinner-cize for five hours or sprint from your state to the next for creative mental improvement.)
The physical and mental dexterity of great masters certainly corroborates these experiments. Like Murakami, Phillip Roth was an avid swimmer. Ernest Hemingway was an expert boxer, David Foster Wallace loved tennis, Samuel Beckett took to cricket like a pro. As a child, Tom Wolfe wanted to be a professional baseball player and Jack Kerouac landed at Columbia University on a football scholarship.
Which brings us back to me. And you. For those curious, I’m typing this post furiously; I told myself I’d be at the gym in less than an hour and I also promised myself I’d exercise every day this month. (Hey, want to take the challenge with me?) Even if I’m not quite committing to waking at 4:00 a.m. — yet!! — the challenge does make me feel like I’m on some hill-winding path to progress, running steadily along fantastical purple mountaintop trails, toward a mind more able to create … something.