Dutch research shows exercise makes for a flexible mind

Dutch research shows exercise makes for a flexible mind

New research has found that people who exercise regularly do find creative thinking easier.

Many creative types have extolled the virtues of exercise in allowing their ideas to flow, including authors like Henry James and Soren Kierkegaard, who liked to take a stroll before sitting down at their desk.

Cognitive psychologists from Leiden University decided to test the supposition by investigating whether regular exercise promoted the two main ingredients of creativity: divergent and convergent thinking.

Thinking creatively

There are two methods for dealing with a problem: divergent thinking, where you work out as many solutions as possible; or convergent thinking, where you work towards a single correct solution.

The scientists tested this by giving tasks to two test groups: one of people of exercise at least four times a week, and one of people who do no regular exercise.

First, they did an "alternate uses test," where participants note down all the possible uses for a pen.

Then they did a "remote associations test," where they were presented with three unrelated words and had to think of a word that linked them. For example, they were given "time," "hair" and "stretch" and had to come up with "long."

Study results

In the remote associations test, the group that exercised frequently performed the best. Study leader Lorenza Colzato said that it seemed that physical movement is good for the ability to think flexibly only if the body is used to being active, otherwise a large part of the energy intended for creative thinking goes to the movement itself.

The researchers believe that these results support Juvenal’s famous line mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body). "Exercising on a regular basis may thus act as a cognitive enhancer promoting creativity in inexpensive and healthy ways," Colzato concluded.

Alexandra Gowling


Alexandra Gowling

Alexandra is an Australian citizen and an experienced expat, having spent (quite a bit of) time in Asia before coming to the Netherlands a year ago. She enjoys writing, reading...

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