5 Reasons Why a Gym is Better Than an Office

Soon Yu and Dave Birss

When you think of a creative person coming up with ideas, you probably imagine a scruffy individual with their Converse up on a desk staring out of a window. And generally, you wouldn’t be far wrong. But science has a very different idea of the best type of footwear for creativity. It seems that a pair of Nike running shoes would be far more beneficial than those tatty old Chucks.

The truth is that one of the most effective ways to get your brain in shape is to work out.

Build your brain as you build your body

A study published in the Journal of Physiology showed that aerobic exercise greatly increased the production of neurons in the hippocampus of rats. The important part here is the role of the hippocampus in learning. It’s the area of the brain that plays a vital role in storing information and building cognitive maps. And exercise provides you with a whole lot more neurons to work with.

However, the study went into even more detail to find out which kind of exercise is the most beneficial for neural production. They tested their rats with sustained running, high-intensity interval training and resistance training and compared the results with a group of sedentary rats. And they discovered that sustained running exercise was by far the most effective way of generating neurons, especially if the rats had a genetic predisposition to respond to it. In contrast, high-intensity interval training had little effect and resistance training had no effect whatsoever.

So if you want to get the most out of your trip to the gym, put down those weights and jump on a running machine.

De-stress for better ideas

We may imagine that we’re sophisticated and advanced creatures but humans are still built for life in the wild. Stress is the word we use for our natural threat response that puts us into fight or flight mode. It’s a way of focusing us on the important stuff in our environment; the things that cause us concern. These days the threats are more likely to be work deadlines, strained relationships and financial pressures than hungry sabre-toothed predators – but our physiological reaction is the same.

In this perspective, it’s easy to understand why stress is a creativity killer. It focuses the mind on low-risk options rather than unproven ones. It makes people want to blend into a group rather than stand out. And it narrows our ability to see things from other perspectives.

However, exercise is a proven stress-buster, whichever form of exercise you choose.

One reason is that exercise is meditation in motion. The act of focusing your mind on something all-consuming removes you from anxious thoughts. It gives you distance from your problems and helps to put them into perspective.

Another reason is that exercise releases endorphins that reduce stress, act as natural painkillers and improve your ability to sleep.

Regularly getting your heart racing will also help to get your mind buzzing with a broader range of ideas.

Think happy thoughts

Those endorphins that you get from a good workout also make you happy. And a happy state has the opposite effect of a stressful one. Whereas stress closes down the mind to a kind of hyper-focused tunnel vision, happiness opens it up to more opportunities. A number of experiments have set out to prove this, with some rather dramatic results.

The simple act of putting doctors in a good mood by handing them some sweets before a test led to them giving the correct diagnosis twice as fast as unhappy doctors. They were also better at considering different possibilities as opposed to sticking to their first idea and trying to make the facts fit.

Evidence seems to show that happiness is linked with creativity on a global scale too. The Martin Prosperity Institute’s 2015 Global Creativity Index ranks countries by their creativity. And when you put the list side by side with a ranking of the happiest countries in the world, there is an obvious correlation.

Stefan Sagmeister is such a believer in happiness leading to creativity that he’s made it part of his award-winning design company. He’s been on a journey for a number of years to find out how to create happiness and harness it to create better work. He even made a film about it. He’s looked at whether artificially induced happy states work and discovered that they do. In fact, he’s a great advocate of exercise as a method of getting into the right state, saying that 15 minutes of running has more effect on him than 30 minutes of meditation.

If they only realized the importance of happiness on their business, surely even the most conservative accountant would want to invest in it.

Pump blood to the right parts of your brain

Exercise is particularly effective at directing blood to the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is known to play an important role in creativity. Its connectivity with so many other areas of the brain suggests that it is the part of the brain responsible for integrating and combining different pieces of information to solve tasks.

It’s not much of a surprise that the increased blood flow results in a clearer mind. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients and removes waste products. And with more blood making it to this important part of our brain, it’s supercharging the brain function accordingly.

Stay sharper for longer

Exercise releases a whole bunch of beneficial chemicals into our bodies. One of these is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been described as fertiliser for the brain. It rewires memory circuits to make them work more efficiently and helps with learning. But exercise also releases serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine which give you a mood boost, attention boost and motivation boost respectively. This is the healthiest drug trip you can ever experience.

But as well as keeping you sharper in the moment, exercise can also keep your mind healthier for longer. A recent study showed that running just over 15 miles a week reduces your risk of Alzheimer’s by 40%.

If exercise was responsible for just one of these effects, it would be more than worth doing. But the combined effect makes it a necessity for anyone who’s serious about improving their creative thinking.

And maybe companies would benefit from closing down their offices and moving their employees to the local gym. Just make sure it’s not one of ours. Neither of us wants to wait in line for a treadmill. Or the jacuzzi.

Co-Written by Soon Yu and Dave Birss
Soon Yu is an international speaker and best-selling author on innovation and design who has been featured in such publications as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. His book, Iconic Advantage®, challenges businesses to refocus their innovation priorities on building greater iconicity and offers deep insights on establishing timeless distinction and relevance. He most recently served as the Global VP of Innovation and Officer at VF Corporation, parent organization to over 30 global apparel companies, including The North Face, Vans, Timberland, Nautica and Wrangler. He also teaches at Parsons School of Design and guest lectures at Stanford University.
Dave Birss is a British creative and strategic thinker with nearly 20 years’ experience of marketing communications. Dave has worked as a stand-up comedian, nude model, session musician, farmhand, busker, veterinary assistant, dishwasher, composer, illustrator, DJ, photographer, graffiti artist, poet and university lecturer. Dave has worked as a Creative Director for some of the UK's most respected agencies for 20 years, including Ogilvy, Poke and McCann Worldgroup. He now runs Additive, a company focussed on inspiring and training the advertising industry, and also hosts the Future of Advertising podcast and is the author of A User Guide to the Creative Mind. 
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