As a full-time health and fitness writer, I am very much aware of the power of exercise. Plus, I also enjoy it, which helps. But I truly believe that exercise should be a key part of any writer’s daily routine, even if it doesn’t pertain to the content, like it does for me.
We all know the benefits of exercise, so I won’ bore you. But what is lesser known, particularly by non-exercisers, is the fact that exercise is a cognitive enhancer, making it an ideal way to break through writer’s block. Research shows that just 10-minutes of physical activity can boost mental performance. Here’s why exercise needs to be a part of your writing routine.
Why you should listen to the health and fitness writer
I’ll preface this by saying I am a credentialed health and fitness writer. I write for some of the leading health, fitness and wellness brands globally. My academic background is in nutrition and exercise science, but my true life’s work is writing.
One of my favorite topics to write about is human optimization, also known as ‘biohacking’. Biohacking involves altering your daily habits, diet, movement, and sleep (amongst others) to function and perform better in your day-to-day life. So, as you’d imagine, a lot of the research I do centers around the role of exercise.
Based on what I have learnt, I do some sort of physical activity every day just to feel good. But on big writing days, I use exercise to prepare me, as though it’s a warm up to the writing. It alleviates writer’s block and I start the day with a clear head, getting into flow state within minutes.
How exercise boosts cognitive function
Exercise increases your heart rate, which in turn increases the blood flow to and around the brain. More blood flow to the brain means more oxygen, which aids all cognitive functions.
Exercise also triggers a powerful hormonal response. Feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins are secreted, while cortisol and adrenaline, hormones associated with feeling stressed and anxious, decrease. Endorphins make us feel good: they decrease our perception of pain, stimulate a feeling of euphoria and rational, clear thinking.
After adolescence your brains stop developing, meaning that your body stops producing new brain cells in the hippocampus, a process known as neurogenesis. The hippocampus is the region of the brain responsible for learning and analyzing information, regulating emotions and retaining memories. As we age, we may think we’re getting smarter but we’re actually losing brain cells. This is why our memory gets a little foggy.
The hippocampus actually increases as a result of regular exercise, and the exercise-induced hormonal changes creates an optimized environment for neurogenesis and brain plasticity. A 2016 study found that exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) inside nerve cells, a protein that is responsible for neurogenesis. Plus, another study conducted on mice found that regular exercise slows down the decline in neurogenesis, meaning that they were able to retain more brain cells.
In Layman’s terms: BDNF transforms the way your brain functions: increasing brain plasticity, retaining more brain cells, thinking clearer and acting more rationally. It’s one of the most prevalent growth hormones associated with mood regulation and cognitive function.
What’s more, studies show that BDNF is lower in individuals experiencing a mental health condition or stress, so finding a way to increase levels of BDNF — like exercising — is associated with an alleviation of symptoms.
Evidence to support exercise as a treatment for writer’s block
According to Wikipedia, writer’s block is a condition in which an author is unable to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece. Essentially, it’s a mental block, characterized by brain fog, forgetfulness and a lack of creativity. So with the condition defined, let’s take a look at the research on exercise and cognition.
A randomized controlled trial published in 2013 by the journal Psychology and Aging assigned a group of participants to 15 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, with a working memory test before and after the intervention. These results were compared against a control. The researchers found that exercise improved reaction time and increased levels of high-arousal positive affect — characterized by feeling alert and active.
Another study, this time published in Comprehensive Physiology found that exercise improves cognitive resource allocation: better informational processing, attention span and environmental awareness. In terms of writing, this is key; you’ll be able to concentrate for longer and efficiently process the information you are learning to convert it into engaging content.
Studies also show that exercise improves creativity. A study analyzed the effects of exercise on mental ‘blocks’, like writer’s block for example. The researchers asked a group of participants to exercise and then complete a creative thinking test. Not only did exercise improve the mood of the participants, but it also improved creative thinking, independently of each other.
The cognitive enhancing effects of exercise are well-established, which is why it’s often recommended as a treatment for work performance and productivity. A study conducted in 2008 examined more than 200 employees to understand the impact of mid-day exercise. Researchers found that employees who exercised during the workday were more productive, completed tasks to a higher standard and left work feeling more satisfied with their day.
Ultimately, the evidence supports the notable cognitive enhancing effects of exercise and makes a clear argument for the use of exercise as a treatment for writer’s block, being linked to improvements in mental sharpness, creativity, productivity, and concentration.
Finding flow and breaking writer’s block
The goal for many writer’s is to write consistently, without distractions. But nearly every writer experiences the dreaded writer’s block — some more frequently and intensely than others. Writer’s block can be a great hindrance to a writer’s success.
The antithesis of writer’s block is flow state. Flow state, or being ‘in the zone’ is a phenomena established in psychology that occurs when an individual is fully immersed in an activity, to the point of losing a sense of time and external awareness. It is the blurring of the outside world; being entirely absorbed, focused and driven to complete the task at hand. The Limitless effect.
Flow state is most commonly associated with creativity or movement, like painting, running, dancing or writing. But it’s a state enjoyed by individuals across the board. I’m sure accountants get into some heavy number flows.
A vehicle to induce flow state is exercise, which also helps with a number of cognitive functions to give your brain the boost it needs to break through writer’s block and create.
The benefit of writing in a flow state
Here are some of the main benefits of getting into flow state:
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
Distractions prevent productivity, focus permits it. Flow state is often referred to as the ‘brain’s most productive state’ due to its association with improved focus. A 10-year McKinsey study found that executives are up to 500 percent more productive when working in flow state, and if workforce flow state increased by 20 percent, productivity would double. Another study found that task efficiency increases drastically, halving the typical time it takes to improve skill quality.
In flow, you have fun. Studies consistently show that regular flow state is a common feature of the happiest people al