August 19

The Power of Movement: How Creativity Flows When the Legs Move

In 2014 Frederic Gros, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris, published his book, A Philosophy of walking, which became a surprise bestseller and was later translated into English. In the book, Gros describes how some of the most original thinkers of our times relied on the power of movement to come up with pioneering ideas and philosophies and how the benefits of exercise extend to far more than physical fitness.

The Nietzsche Trail

Gros describes how the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, plagued by migraines and other niggling health conditions, went on long walks along the French Riviera to get some respite and clear his mind. The exercise seemed to work. Some of Nietzsche's best ideas came during his hikes of the 2.6-mile out-and-back trail near Èze, Alpes Maritimes, popular today as the "Nietzsche Trail."

"I slept well, I laughed a lot, and I found a marvellous vigour and patience," Nietzsche later remarked about his time on the trail.

The open-air movement

Convinced by then that it was the power of walking that enabled his clear thinking, Nietzsche encouraged others to "sit as little as possible" and not "believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement."

Nietzsche believed that the quality of a writer's (or thinker's) work is directly related to how one "has come by his ideas. Whether it was while sitting in front of his inkwell, with a pinched belly, his head bowed low over the paper—in which case we are quickly finished with his book, too! Cramped intestines betray themselves—you can bet on that—no less than closet air, closet ceilings, closet narrowness."

In the Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche went on to declare that

All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking

So, was Nietzsche exaggerating, or is there truly some link between physical activity and cognitive performance?

Exercise as Miracle-Gro for the brain

In 2008, Professor John Ratey, an internationally recognized expert in Neuropsychiatry, published his best-selling book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. In the book, the author describes a research study by Carl Cotman, director of the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California, Irvine.

Cotman, who had just finished a long-term aging study, had concluded that there were three common factors among people with the least cognitive decline. Two of these factors were known and expected—education and self-efficacy. But the third factor took Cotman by surprise. The common thread among those with the best mental faculties, in addition to education and self-efficacy, was exercise!

A new paradigm

Until Cotman's study, the prevailing theory was that exercise did a lot for the body but not much for the brain. But soon, Cotman and his team of researchers were able to prove otherwise. Using an experiment that involved mice and running wheels, Cotman confirmed that compared to sedentary rodents, the brains of mice that had exercised contained a significantly higher portion of BDNF (Brain-derived Neurotrophic factor)—a key protein tied to learning.

Cotman's discovery highlighted the role of exercise in neuroscience, especially when dealing with some of the most dreadful diseases of our time, such as Alzheimer's and dementia. More importantly, it led to a plethora of research clearly establishing that exercise isn't just good for the heart and other physical organs but is equally, if not more, beneficial to the brain and mental health.

Indeed, as author Ratey writes in his book, exercise is like miracle-gro for the brain.

The $64K question is how frequently and intensely one needs to exercise to reap its benefits. And are some forms of exercise better than others?

Movement as a process rather than an activity

As someone who runs fairly regularly, I often overlooked any advice I saw in books or magazines about the power of movement. I assumed, quite patronizingly if I'm being honest, that gym rats and runners like me knew it all already. And that such advice was actually intended for "other people"—the couch-bound ones.

So, it felt like a slap in the face when a few years ago, I came across this headline on CNN that didn't mince words: Yes, sitting too long can kill you, even if you exercise.

Like many other similar pieces at that time, the article described how prolonged sitting increases the risk of severe illness and death regardless of how much we exercise. If there's one thing I'm (and presumably many of you are) guilty of, it is prolonged sitting.

After spending an hour, or two, or even more running, I typically tend to spend a majority of my day crouched poorly in front of a glowing screen of some sort because, in my mind, I "earned" that privilege.

Sitting is the new smoking

When the phrase "sitting is the new smoking" started to catch on a few years ago, it caught the attention of many people. (Though some scientists found the catchphrase downright dangerous because equating sitting with smoking seemed to somehow trivialize the proven and dangerous effects of smoking.)

But sitting has become a real problem in our culture.

A major study conducted on over 51,000 participants estimated that the total time we sit increased by over an hour between 2007 and 2016, both among adults and adolescents.

The study stated that the effects of prolonged sitting could not be negated except in the case of highly active individuals—for instance, those who power-walked for 11 hours or more a week. And the consequences are pretty severe. Prolonged sitting is linked to almost any disease you name—obesity, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and overall mortality.

Writer Susan Orlean, in an article in the New Yorker, even goes on to say that while sitting

Your metabolic rate drops to about one calorie a minute—just slightly higher than if you were dead.

Through sitting, we've given new meaning to the phrase "the living dead."

The worst part, as our backsides become bigger, our brains get smaller. Contrary to popular belief that vegging out can relax us and help sharpen our thinking, prolonged sitting hampers creativity. Our ability to connect the dots slows down, and we think less effectively.

Incorporating movement into the day

Mayo Clinic radiologist Jeff Fiddler, with his co-author James Levine, published a paper in the Journal of the American College of Radiology that claimed that physicians who walked on a treadmill while reviewing CT scans performed better than those who reviewed scans the traditional way, i.e., sitting down. And thus, was born the treadmill desk.

Fiddler and Levine's paper attracted both skeptics and believers. However, it did question the status-quo and raise an important point: we don't have to find separate chunks of time in our already overscheduled calendars to benefit from the power of movement. With some imagination, we can move while we do our work.

How much and how often?

As to the question of how much exercise we should do or how often we need to workout, unfortunately (or fortunately), there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. But here are some guidelines:

  • The bare minimum is to get 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week (or half of that if the activity is rigorous). If you're planning to run a marathon or train in an ultra, however, the requirements, of course, go way, way, way up.
  • It's not helpful to exercise a lot and then sit a lot. Incorporating movement (low intensity is fine) throughout the day is key. The goal is to avoid prolonged sitting.
  • A combination of cardiovascular, strength training, and flexibility is ideal. But don't let perfect be the enemy of good.

Exercise Intensity and Thinking

Just like how deadlifts and squats are great for the back and hamstrings but don't do much to improve forearm strength, the cognitive benefits of exercise vary depending on the intensity of the movement.

In her book The Extended Mind, author Annie Murphy Paul describes Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman's experiments with walking and thinking.

Kahneman says, "I certainly exert physical effort and burn more calories (when strolling at 17 minutes a mile) than if I sat in a recliner, but I experience no strain, no conflict, and no need to push myself. I am also able to think and work while walking at that rate. Indeed, I suspect that the mild physical arousal of the walk may spill over into greater mental alertness."

"Accelerating beyond my strolling speed," Kahneman adds, "brings about a sharp deterioration in my ability to think coherently."

The takeaway?

There's room in our lives for both low-exertion movement and high-intensity exercise.

Low-intensity strolls energize our brain circuits, help us think more clearly, and connect hitherto unconnected dots. Moderate to vigorous exercise, on the other hand, can get us into the exalted state of mindfulness, a state where we are fully present and usually cannot get lost in thoughts.


Our bodies are designed to move. And our minds expect (and hope) that our bodies move.

Exercise isn't about getting ten thousand steps in before 7 a.m. and then forgetting about movement for the next twenty-three hours. Instead, it is about incorporating movement into our daily activities throughout the day.

To benefit the most from the power of movement, a two-pronged approach would be helpful

  • Increasing physical activity and
  • Reducing time spent sitting.

To paraphrase Yeats, we cannot make "will do the work of the imagination." Sitting in front of a screen and hoping for creative outbursts to happen is wishful thinking at best. Your chances of breakthroughs are much higher if you wander and let your mind wander too.

When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs. Jean-Jacques Rousseau



{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
Get a FREE detailed step by step guide to build a practical to-do list to achieve all your life goals. 
You'll also get weekly actionable tips based on science for a healthy, productive and happy life!