Writers and Exercise: The Rewards That Lie Beyond the Excuses

Filed in The Healthy Writer by on July 11, 2016 • views: 1353

You may not like the idea of exercise.

You may even hate it.

When you think about getting on the treadmill, going to the gym, heading out in your running shorts, or signing up for a zumba class, you may break out in a cold sweat.

It doesn’t matter. The bottom line is:

If you’re not exercising regularly, you’re not only putting your health at risk,
you’re also potentially jeopardizing your writing.

Here’s why.

Symptoms of Writing Without Exercise

If you’re a writer and you’re not exercising, don’t be surprised if you suffer from the following symptoms:

  • Aches and pains—back pain, neck pain, sciatica, joint pain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Weight gain (from all that sitting)
  • Inability to focus on your project
  • Lack of ideas
  • Dull, flat writing
  • Lack of energy to get your writing and writing-related activities done
  • Writer’s block
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of self-confidence

Exercise helps reduce all these symptoms, but if you’re not doing it, you’re more likely to suffer from all these ailments and more.

Writing is An Endurance Sport

In a way, all writers are athletes. And we’re not the type to do sprints.

“Writing a book is a marathon–it’s like a long distance bicycle race that takes place through every part of your head,” writes author Geoffrey Gray. “It requires high levels of endurance, constantly fighting to make it to the next stage of the narrative and through the last part of your brain.”

Self-doubt can whittle away your confidence, and that can lead to panic.

“To deter panic,” Gray writes, “I had no choice. I had to exercise. To finish the manuscript I literally had to get in shape and make the battle physical.”

Blogger Javacia Harris Bowser agrees that exercise is necessary for writers.

“I’m a firm believer in the saying that exercise is medicine,” she says. “Exercise can help keep you healthy and strong. And whether you want to write great books that need to be read or build your blog into a business that can change people’s lives, being sick and tired will make those goals a lot harder to achieve.”

She adds that some of her best ideas come to her while exercising, and that achieving her fitness goals boosts her self-confidence, which motivates her to go after her writing goals with more vigor.

As a full-time writer for 20 years, I can tell you without a doubt: the writing life is just better when you’re exercising regularly.

But we have so many excuses, don’t we?

7 Excuses Writers Use to Avoid Exercise

Time1. I don’t have time.

Pshaw. We all have the same number of hours in the day. This isn’t about time—it’s about priorities. When you say you don’t have time to exercise, what you’re saying is that for you, exercise isn’t a priority.

Let me see if I can change your mind. A 2015 study found that exercise reduces your risk of dying, plain and simple. Even those who exercised less than the recommended 2.5 hours of moderate activity a week still had a 20 percent lower risk of dying than those who didn’t exercise at all. Those who met or exceeded the requirements had at least a 31 percent lower risk of dying.

Even better for writers: a 2013 study reported that taking part in regular exercise (such as going for a walk) improves creative thought. Those who exercised four times a week were found, through a series of tests, to think more creatively than those with a more sedentary lifestyle.

2. I’m too tired.

You’re tired because you’re not exercising.

It may seem counterintuitive, but exercise gives you energy. In a 2006 review of over 70 studies, for example, researchers reported that sedentary people who completed a regular exercise program had improved fatigue compared to those who didn’t exercise.

“We live in a society where people are always looking for the next sports drink, energy bar or cup of coffee that will give them the extra edge to get through the day,” said lead author Tim Puetz. “But it may be that lacing up your tennis shoes and getting out and doing some physical activity every morning can provide that spark of energy that people are looking for.”

Here’s the trick: When you’re feeling too tired to work out, lower your expectations. Tell yourself you’ll just walk for a quarter mile, for instance. Or you’ll bike for only 10 minutes. Bring it down far enough that you know you can do it even though you’re tired. I can nearly guarantee that once you start, your energy will kick in and you’ll go farther than you expected, but even if you don’t, you’ll have more energy the next day because of your efforts.

Try it and see!

3. It’s too boring.

This is a common one for writers. We’re creative folks. Pounding away on a treadmill every day gets old fast.

But this is a lame excuse. You’re creative, right? Get creative about your exercise! Find ways to make it fun. You have no end of options. You can watch your favorite shows while on the treadmill or exercise bike to make it more fun. Try new exercise videos to learn new dance moves. Sign up for a new class at the gym—zumba, swimming, aerobics, dance, racquetball, etc. Get on a softball or basketball team. Grab a friend and set up a regular tennis game.

Here’s a great example. Author and creative writing teacher Todd Mitchell (and W&W featured writer) created his own “American Ninja Warrior” inspired obstacle course under his deck. Now that’s getting creative with your exercise.

Kids Sleep4. There’s no one to watch the kids.

Writers with kids? Here’s your opportunity to be a good example.

Your kids already see you working at the computer. Do they see you up and moving? If you have young ones, invest in some exercise equipment you can use and home, and workout with your little one nearby.

As your kids get older, enlist their help in getting you moving. Kids have endless energy, and can challenge you. Try family walks, baseball games, bike rides, games in the park, time with pets, tennis playing, and more. According to a 2014 study, the less physically active a mother is, the more likely her child will be sedentary early in life. At the same time, a child was more likely to be active if her mother made exercise a higher priority.

Kids today need your help. There are far too many distractions that require no movement at all. If you want your kids to grow up strong and healthy, give them a good example to follow.

What better motivation to get moving?

Joint Pain5. I’m in pain.

Again, all the more reason to move.

Back pain. (A common affliction for writers.) Joint pain. Fibromyalgia. The list goes on. Most any painful condition can be made better by moving. A 2007 study, for instance, reported that women with fibromyalgia in a four-month exercise program reported significant improvements in physical function, fatigue, and depression.

Harvard Health reports that yoga helps relieve back pain, and a 2012 study reported that both aerobic and strengthening exercises reduced joint pain and increased walking ability in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. A 2015 study also reported that exercise helped manage hip arthritis pain.

Of course, it’s always best to check with your doctor. But once you get his or her approval, find an exercise that works for you and stick with it. You don’t have to push yourself through pain—use braces, wraps, and exercise modifications as you need to. Try other options like yoga, tai chi, swimming, and walking. Just keep moving.

6. I’m already thin.

Being “thin” or “skinny” is no reason to avoid exercise. You may not have excess weight hanging around, but there are many more benefits to exercise than weight loss. As mentioned so far, it increases creativity and energy, and helps reduce the pain of hours spent at the computer.

Even if you are in a healthy weight range, you may have an excess percentage of body fat inside. Internal fat surrounding vital organs like the heart, liver or pancreas is now believed to be just as dangerous as the more obvious external fat that bulges underneath the skin.

“Being thin doesn’t automatically mean you’re not fat,” said Dr. Jimmy Bell, a professor of molecular imaging at Imperial College, London.

Indeed, studies have found that people who maintain their weight through diet rather than exercise are likely to have major deposits of internal fat. In fact, some studies have indicated that overweight people who are active are healthier than skinny ones who aren’t.

“Normal-weight persons who are sedentary and unfit are at much higher risk for mortality than obese persons who are active and fit,” said Dr. Steven Blair, an obesity expert at the University of South Carolina.

Besides, you need exercise to reduce your risk of our most common deadly diseases: heart disease, cancer, and stroke, which can all hit skinny people, too.

Don’t let “being thin” be your excuse. Maintaining weight gets more difficult as we age. Get into a regular exercise routine now to both enjoy the health benefits and get yourself in the habit of moving, which will serve you well as you get older.

Don't Feel Like It7. I just don’t feel like it.

Allowing mood to affect your exercise habits? That’s as bad as allowing your mood to derail your daily writing practice.

You know that a daily writing time is your best way to make your writing dreams come true. Maybe you’ve already experienced the discipline it takes to sit down and write, regardless of whether or not the muse is with you.

You need to apply the same sort of discipline to your exercise routine—because it’s just as important to your writing as sitting down in front of the computer. Exercise not only keeps your body in shape so it can better withstand the rigors of hours in the seated (or standing) position, it also keeps your brain sharp enough to produce new stuff on a regular basis.

According to a 2013 study, for example, aerobic exercise, resistance training, and muscle toning all increased brain volume in the hippocampal region, the area involved in verbal memory and learning. Harvard Medical School reports that exercise stimulates the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

Exercise also reduces stress and anxiety, and improves sleep. According to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, moderate aerobic exercise—such as brisk walking 45 minutes three times a week—has shown consistently in studies to improve memory and brain function, in some cases by as much as 20 percent.

According to their website:

“Aerobic exercise increases the creation of new brain cells in the areas of the brain that control memory, complex thought and decision-making. Aerobic exercise also increases both the production of molecules that carry brain signals and the connections between cells where these molecules work. Other forms of exercise such as stretching and light strength training do not show the same specific benefit in memory and brain function, even though they certainly contribute other important health benefits.”

A 2014 study found something even more remarkable: just one bout of exercise can improve your mental focus and cognitive performance for any challenging task you face that day.

Daily Exercise Will Improve Your Writing

If you’re looking for one way to improve your writing practice, this is it: get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week.

After 20 years as a health writer—someone who’s spent every working day reading the research and reporting on it—I can say with full confidence that exercise is the best thing you can do for your health, and one of the best things you can do for your creative writing practice.

I encourage you to commit to it. I can nearly guarantee you’ll experience the benefits.

No more excuses.

Do you make exercise a part of your writing day? Please share your thoughts.

Sources
Hannah Arem, et al., “Leisure Time Physical Activity and Mortality a Detailed Pooled Analysis of the Dose-Response Relationship,” JAMA Intern Med., 2015; 175(6):959-967, http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2212267.

Sarah Knapton, “Lacking inspiration? Exercise found to boost creativity,” Telegraph, December 3, 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10491702/Lacking-inspiration-Exercise-found-to-boost-creativity.html.

University of Georgia. “Regular Exercise Plays A Consistent And Significant Role In Reducing Fatigue.” ScienceDaily, November 8, 2006, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/11/061101151005.htm.

Kathryn R. Hesketh, “Activity Levels in Mothers and Their Preschool Children,” Pediatrics, March 2014, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2014/03/19/peds.2013-3153.

Gina Shaw, “Exercise Can Ease Fibromyalgia Pain,” WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/fibromyalgia/features/exercise-can-ease-fibromyalgia-pain.

“Yoga for pain relief,” Harvard Health Publications, http://www.health.harvard.edu/alternative-and-complementary-medicine/yoga-for-pain-relief.

Nader Rahnama, Vahid Mazloum, “Effects of Strengthening and Aerobic Exercises on Pain Severity and Function in Patients with Knee Rheumatoid Arthritis,” Int J Prev Med., July 2012; 3(7):493-498, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3415190/.

“Exercise Helps Manage Hip Arthritis Pain,” Medical Daily, December 12, 2015, http://www.medicaldaily.com/exercise-helps-manage-hip-arthritis-pain-365016.

“Thin people can be fat on the inside,” NBC News, May 11, 2007, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/18594089/ns/health-fitness/t/thin-people-can-be-fat-inside/#.Vt-kxCkzwy4.

Lisanne F. ten Brinke, et al., “Aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume in older women with probable mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month randomized controlled trial,” Br J Sports Med., February 2015; 49(4):248-54, http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2014/03/04/bjsports-2013-093184.abstract?sid=ecff0a48-d4fd-4a9d-b34a-156ca915a79e.

Heidi Godman, “Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills,” Harvard Health Letter, April 9, 2014, http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110.

“Research Findings on Benefits of Exercise,” Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, https://www.fredhutch.org/en/treatment/long-term-follow-up/FAQs/exercise-benefits.html.

Lot Verburgh, et al., “Physical exercise and executive functions in preadolescent children, adolescents and young adults: a meta-analysis,” Br J Sports Med., 2014; 48:973-979, http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/12/973.

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Comments (8)

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  1. vicki says:

    I go to the gym at least 3 times a week – I aim for 4. When i don’t go i find I’m lethargic, don’t sleep well and am more prone to depression. The gym is a good time to think about writing. I often come home ready to write.

  2. Oh, this is SO true, Colleen! Exercise clears my brain as well, causing me to be more creative as I go. I just love: Writing is an endurance sport.” I’d never thought of it in quite those terms, but so true!

  3. Wow, this is a timely article! I also practice Tai Chi and was walking regularly until it got too hot here in Texas, but I just learned today that walking benefits the brain because the movement of the hips gets the spinal fluid moving, as well as the increased heart rate bringing necessary blood to the brain. Okay, NO more excuses, if even I have to go to the (air-conditioned) mall to walk!

    • Admin says:

      Wow. Finding a lot of writers who do tai chi—cool. Ha ha. Yes, walking is SO good for you and so many writers have found it to be helpful. Good luck finding a cool place!

  4. Kathy Scott says:

    I’m inspired to get up and take a walk after reading this article. I’ve been doing Tai Chi for the past ten years on a daily basis. It has been great for my balance and circulation. Now, I realize I need more than this to get my creative juices flowing. It seems hard to push on in my writing. I’m doing a second draft on my novel and it’s harder than I suspected. There are flaws I encounter that twist my plot and damage my characters. To offset my discouragement, I sense a walk around the block will give me more time to think through my faulty phrases and find fitness as an added bonus. Thanks for these great incentives to keep active as well as writing.

    • Admin says:

      I hear you on that second draft, Kathy. Ugh! Hope some new walks will help—I’m thinking they will! Cool on the tai chi, as well, especially considering we just had a post on that! ;o)