We all know that we need regular physical exercise to keep our bodies healthy and fit. However, recent research by Dr Christian Rominger and his colleagues at the University of Graz in Austria has shown that daily physical movement can also increase our creative thinking.
In their study, the researchers found that people who moved more were able to come up with more original ideas in cognitive tasks. If you wonder what was considered as a movement, count any walking, cycling, gardening, cleaning the house, doing the dishes, grocery shopping and getting kids sorted for school. The type of exercise seems to be less important than how much you move overall during a day.
Many preceding studies have shown the benefits of physical activity on emotional wellbeing, such as decreased levels of depression in adults and teens, and overall increased mood. Also, there is a large body of evidence linking physical exercise with improved memory, learning and overall sharper cognitive performance.
Last but not least, some studies have shown that exercise could be beneficial in slowing down mental decline due to ageing or diseases such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.
The effects of exercise are profound, but the question still remains – how does physical movement change the processes within the brain?
What happens inside your brain when you exercise?
To answer that, we need to look at animal studies. First of all, in the laboratory of neuroscientist Fred Gage, an amazing discovery was made over 20 years ago – young mice were divided into two groups, with each assigned to a different box. One group was moved to a so-called enriched environment, filled with running wheels, tunnels and toys to play with. The other group was moved to a plain environment with no entertainment. Mice in the enriched group, 40 days later, were found to have grown 15 per cent more new neurons (called neurogenesis) in the brain region called dentate gyrus, part of the hippocampus, which is crucial for memory and learning.
A few years later they repeated the experiments in adult mice and found that exercise on the running wheel alone was sufficient to not only increase the number of new neurons, but also help them to survive and successfully integrate into the existing neuronal networks.
This ability to add new neurons into circuitries might be crucial for memory, learning and other higher cognitive functions. Although it is much harder to investigate neurogenesis in humans, brain scans have shown exercise can cause the hippocampal region to increase in size, which can improve memory performance.
Talking about changes in the brain, the birth of new neurons is just one small part of it. All the brain networks have the ability to change in another way too – strengthening or weakening the connections between existing neurons. This is called synaptic plasticity and is a mechanism behind us getting better at the skills we practise most often (such as driving) and worse at the ones we stop doing (such as speaking a foreign language we learnt at school). A crucial component for such plasticity is the molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a small protein that is a jack-of-all-trades – it increases neurogenesis, supports the survival of new-born neurons, helps them to incorporate into the existing networks, and also it gives us a gift of synaptic plasticity – the ability to modify and change our existing brain networks.
When we exercise, BDNF levels go up, which not only increases the number of new neurons in the hippocampal region, promoting better learning and memory, but also helps networks in other brain regions to reshape and rewire. That is crucial for any higher functions, but in particular for creative thinking, better decision-making, agile performance, training your attention and overcoming annoying habits, such as procrastination.
For optimum brain health find aerobic exercises that you enjoy
Although any type of exercise will help your brain mechanisms, it has to be something you enjoy that doesn’t cause you too much stress. Stress, especially chronic levels of it, unfortunately, reduces brain plasticity, making it harder to change. So if you are trying to force yourselves to run on that treadmill but you hate every second of it – stop it straight away!
Find an exercise that feels enjoyable and fun for you – it might be gardening or walking in the park for some, jogging or cycling for others, rock climbing, yoga, Zoom fitness classes for the rest. It has to be a personal choice in terms of the form of activity and where you do it. It’s worth mentioning, though, that aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking, leisurely running or cycling) is more beneficial than anaerobic (such as lifting weights, doing push-ups or sprinting) as it increases BDNF levels in the brain more.
Evolutionary scientists propose that it might be due to the fact that movements such as walking or running resulted in us encountering new environments, where speedy learning could have increased our survival.
Exercise every day for maximum benefits
So, let’s bring it back to our day-to-day lives. John is sitting at the computer trying to finish off his presentation for a client. He is frustrated – no new ideas come to his mind – he feels drained and overwhelmed so starts to spiral down into procrastination. Would going for a jog help him? In short, yes and no.
A one-off physical activity will help him to reduce stress and give a break to his overthinking brain. However, to increase his creativity, memory, learning and reduce his depressive moods, John needs to be physically active on a regular basis. After reading this article, John thinks through the activities he enjoys – he loves gardening, rowing and cycling. He creates himself a weekly routine – now that spring is here, he will garden for two hours on Saturdays, go for a one-hour bike ride on Sundays and spend 15-20 minutes on his rowing machine each lunch break.
Keeping exercise short for the working days makes it feel more manageable so he doesn’t feel the need to procrastinate over it. In the past, he tried to commit to one hour of rowing each day, which soon withered away due to competing commitments. Does it have to be every day? Not necessarily, but the regularity matters – if you plan to exercise three times a week, it’s better to spread it over a few days rather than binge exercising on the weekends.
If you are not keen on exercise, try to tweak it to the way that would feel fun for you – go for a walk while listening to an audiobook or a podcast; instead of picking the kids up from school by car, try to walk there and get a nice cup of coffee on the way; or put your favourite music on when you are doing house chores – every movement matters and the more you enjoy it, the more your brain benefits from it.
It doesn’t need to be daily, but at least 30 minutes, two to three times a week. If you exercise every day, you can reduce it to 15-20 minutes and still hope to benefit.
Dr Gabija Toleikyte is the author of Why The F*ck Can’t I Change?: Insights from a neuroscientist to show that you can. To download for £3.99, visit the Telegraph Bookshop or call 0844 851 1514
Read more: 15 ways to boost your brain health – and avoid dementia