Exercise, the Brain, and Creativity

The benefits of physical exercise are extremely well documented. Exercise makes us feel good in the body and the brain. It improves cardiovascular health, makes us physically and mentally stronger, reduces stress, and improves self-esteem. But all that oxygen pouring into our cells boosts more than muscular condition and mental cognition, new studies indicate that it might also boost creativity and improve imagination.

Exercise stimulates the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system, the system responsible for unconscious bodily functions such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestion. The hippocampus is related to cognitive flexibility, or our ability to change our thoughts in response to stimuli. In other words, it helps us think on our feet and react creatively to the situations we face.

Here are a few examples of the impact of exercise on creativity and the brain: One study shows that going for a walk can help you come up with new ideas. (1)  Another study found that exercise not only boosted creativity but did so immediately following it. ( 2) Still another study shows that exercise enhances creativity no matter what your mood. (3)

Christopher Bergland puts it this way in Psychology Today “Sweat is like WD-40 for your mind-–it lubricates the rusty hinges of your brain and makes your thinking more fluid. Exercise allows your conscious mind to access fresh ideas that are buried in the subconscious. Every thought that you have is a unique tapestry of millions of neurons locking together in a specific pattern, this is called an engram. If you do not ‘unclamp’ during the day, you get locked into a loop of rut-like thinking. If for any reason you are unable to do aerobic activity, focused meditation is also an excellent way to create a default state.” (Psychology Today, The Neuroscience of Imagination)

The article “Forget Brainstorming” published in Newsweek, in July 2010, claims: “Almost every dimension of cognition improves from 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, and creativity is no exception. The type of exercise doesn’t matter, and the boost lasts for at least two hours afterward. However, there’s a catch: this is the case only for the physically fit. For those who rarely exercise, the fatigue from aerobic activity counteracts the short-term benefits.” What a great impetus for long-term fitness!

Laughter can also improve creativity. In much the same way exercise works on the hippocampus, laughter acts upon the prefrontal and cingulate cortexes of the brain (areas associated with decision-making, emotion, and cognition). The act of laughing also improves circulation, boosts immunity, and decreases stress. It is generally understood that when we are sick or under stress, our creativity also suffers.

I did not find any studies substantiating my hypothesis that laughing while exercising increases the benefits of both, perhaps even exponentially, but I will advocate for laughter while exercising. If we enjoy ourselves, we will be more likely to keep exercising, become fit in the long term, and perhaps even more creative.


  1. Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz, Stanford University, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2014
  2. Aerobic Exercise and Creative Potential: Immediate and Residual Effects. David M. Blanchette, Stephen P. Ramocki, John N. O’del, Michael S. Casey, Creativity Research Journal, 2005
  3. Exercise enhances creativity independently of mood, Hannah Steinberg, Elizabeth A Sykes, Tim Moss, Susan Lowery, Nick LeBoutillier, Alison Dewe, 1997

image credit: By Allan Ajifo [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons