Paddleboarding one balmy afternoon last summer, I found myself looking down at the glassy, sun-struck sea. It was one of those rare days in Britain where there wasn’t a breath of wind, and the visibility of the water was so crisp that I could see mullet and wrasse weaving in and out of the rocks below. As I drifted there on my board, my manuscript waiting for me indoors, I wondered, Can I honestly pull this off as a creative break? You see, for me, having a boost of exercise, or a quick one-on-one with nature, is all part of my typical writing day. I call them creative breaks. Other people just call them, well, breaks.
The thing is, after getting outside, I return to my desk feeling refreshed, energized and ready to crack on with my word count. And it’s not just me. According to a study in Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience (what, you don’t have a subscription?), exercising regularly is linked with creative thinking, brain health and cognition. The reason, researchers believe, is that exercise stimulates blood flow to the brain and thus more critical oxygen reaches the muscle.
While writing, all too often I was finding myself swerving away from my manuscript, and into the black hole of the Internet. The trouble was, half an hour later, a good chunk of my writing day had disappeared – and I wasn’t even left feeling refreshed or inspired after it. In contrast, exercise not only gets you away from a computer screen, but the endorphins produced help sharpen your concentration when you return to your desk.
So, what are my favourite exercise tipples? Well, first I must confess that I’ve a nasty little habit of starting something new (Bikram, zumba, kickboxing, Tai chi, salsa), persuading everyone I know to join me, only to promptly grow bored and give up. What I’ve learnt about myself is that in order to exercise regularly, I need to enjoy it, which for me means exercising outdoors. Beach running, paddleboarding, sea swimming and yoga have all gone the distance. After any of these pursuits I invariably get back to my desk breathless and smiling, ready to settle into a few hours of creative thinking. I’ve done a little digging, and it seems other writers also find exercise boosts their creativity. Sophie Goddard, features writer at Cosmopolitan, swears by a 30-minute swim in the middle of her working day, while Sunday Times bestselling author, Kimberley Chambers, tells me that she always writes better after a couple of morning gym classes.
For me, the creative benefits don’t only come after you’ve exercised, but also during the exercise. One of the main plot twists in A Single Breath arrived while I was running up a sand dune, and a character issue that I’d wrangled with for days at my desk was resolved during a 15-minute sea swim. So, next time you fancy taking a yomp through the park in your working day, or wandering on the beach with the sunshine on your face – go ahead, it’s good for your creativity.
Lucy Clarke is the author of A Single Breath, published by HarperCollins on 27th March 2014.
(All photos credited to James Bowden.)