Wellbeing and Mental Health

Exercise not only helps with mental health - it makes us more creative too, say scientists

Exercise creativity healthy living mental health wellbeing

Research has found a clear relationship between healthy lifestyles, positive mood and innovative thinking. Image: Unsplash/Anupam Mahapatra

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  • A positive link has been found between exercise and creativity by researchers in Austria.
  • The study shows physically active participants were more inventive than those with a more sedentary lifestyle – but they were not always more happy.
  • The results suggest that movement, rather than happiness, is the catalyst for being more creative.
  • A US study found that exercise reduces the number of days per month a person experiences poor mental health by more than 43%.

If jogging, cycling or brisk walks are an essential part of your daily routine, you may be better able to think outside the box than your couch-loving friends or neighbours.

The link between physical exercise and improved health – in both body and mind – is long-established, but an active lifestyle also makes you more creative, scientists have found.

Researchers at Austria’s University of Graz analyzed the impact of regular exercise on the human imagination and found a clear relationship between healthy lifestyles, positive mood and innovative thinking. In general, more active meant more creative – but why?

Boosting creativity levels

A group of 79 adults aged between 18 and 33 years were studied over a five-day period, their “everyday bodily movement” was recorded, and participants completed a series of invention tests to assess their creativity levels, while also self-reporting their moods.

While the physical reaction of exercise on bodily health can be directly measured, the link between active lifestyles and creativity is more abstract.

One theory proposes that the endorphins, increased blood flow and other physical attributes of regular exercise produce a happiness boost, which helps fuel original or abstract thoughts. To test this notion, Graz scientists applied their results to statistical data from other studies to increase the sample group and isolate which factors could have influenced performance.

Study participants with active lifestyles proved more creative than those with more sedentary habits, the researchers noted in Nature: Scientific Reports, but extremely vigorous exercise performed no better than moderate exercise in boosting creativity levels. Active participants, although more creative, were not always more happy than their inactive peers, suggesting that movement rather than happiness was the catalyst for being more creative.

Because the study was “associational”, the New York Times points out, it cannot tell us “if being more active directly causes us to be more creative” – but it does at least prove that “activity and creativity are linked”.

Tackling mental health

As well as making our creativity flow more freely, regular exercise can stimulate the brain to help prevent or tackle mental health conditions.

Getting out and about on runs, walks or other regular physical pursuits decreases the risk of both dementia and bouts of depression among the UK population by 30%, figures for 2017 show.

A US study of 1.2 million people over a four-year period found that regular exercise reduced the number of days per month of poor mental health by more than 43%, compared with people with similar characteristics that didn’t exercise. All exercise types were found to reduce the mental health burden on participants, with the highest reductions attributed to regular participation in team sports, cycling and aerobic activities.

About 264 million people are affected by depression around the world, with more women than men affected, according to World Health Organization estimates. That’s almost 3.5% of the global population.

The importance of the early prevention of mental health issues in young people was emphasized in the World Economic Forum’s report, A Global Framework for Youth Mental Health.

Exercise offers a way to reduce the mental health burden on individuals and reduce the considerable healthcare costs associated with treating mental health issues.

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