If You’re Fit, a Single Workout Boosts Creativity

Do you have a tough problem to solve today at work? Then tell your boss you’ll be heading out for a run, and that new research sanctions your excursion.

That’s because the research, conducted at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that regular exercisers performed better on a problem-solving test when they did a short workout.

The research involved 96 people, half of whom were sedentary and half of whom exercised at least three times a week over the previous two years. Half of each group did two types of mental tasks while at rest, and the other half of each group did the tasks while riding a stationary bike.

The tasks measured what the researchers said are two key components of creativity: divergent thinking and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is used to generate many new ideas when more than one solution is correct; this is (ideally) what happens during a brainstorming session. In the study, for example, participants were asked to come up with as many uses as possible for a pen (write a note, drum on a table, give as a gift, make a new belthole because you’ve lost so much weight, etc.).

Convergent thinking, in contrast, is used to come up with one good solution to a problem. As an example, the study participants were presented with three unrelated words (such as “hair,” “time” and “stretch”) and asked to think of an associated word common to the three (in this case, “long”).

Overall, the regular exercisers did better than the sedentary people. But the most noteworthy result was that the fit people did better on the convergent-thinking test when cycling than when at rest. This might not surprise anyone who’s had an “Aha!” moment 10 minutes into a run after mulling a problem all day, but it’s nice to see the phenomenon backed by research.

The non-fit people, meanwhile, performed worse when cycling than when at rest; the researchers speculate that the unaccustomed activity taxed their brains enough to impair concentration.

“Our observations suggest that more exercise may enhance convergent thinking, at least in individuals with a higher degree of physical fitness,” the researchers wrote.

Be sure to tell your boss that if a solution doesn’t come during your run, you’ll need to lace up again: In the study, the creative boost from working out for the regular exercisers was temporary.

“The enhancement of cognitive-control processes by aerobic fitness is so short-lived that positive effects are restricted to performance during or directly after exercising,” the researchers wrote. “From the current results, one may even speculate that for people who are used to exercise, the absence of exercise …. impairs [creative] performance more than its presence improves it.”

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