An Author's Most Valuable Instrument
When I was growing up, the only nutritional advice I was given was to eat plenty of vegetables and fruit, to avoid fats, and to get some exercise. Every day, scientists are discovering just how crucial exercise is to our overall health. Sugar is being equated to cocaine as to its effects on the body. And, more evidence is coming to the forefront that the more we sit, the worse our general health becomes. Some have argued that sitting for long periods of time has the worst impact on your health out of all other dietary factors combined.
Our brains are the engines of our stories. Writers depend on several assets to get their work done: a writing device, concentration, knowledge, memory, internal visualization, perception, and their favored choice of brown liquid. Without your brain you're stuck with just a writing implement and a cooling mug of joy. Without a doubt, we need to keep our minds in as optimum of a condition as possible. Storytelling is in our DNA. I don't believe that anyone lacks the ability or skill, but if you might be undermining your efforts if you don't work out at least thirty minutes for five days a week.
I tweeted a while back that we should consider ourselves lucky that our training grounds aren’t at the gym or in a classroom, but in our own homes. As I thought about that, I began to reconsider my stance. It’s glorious to train our minds and increase our skills from the comfort of padded chairs or snug little recliners, but we’re also doing our creativity a disservice if we become comfortable with a sedentary lifestyle. Let's take a look into why this could be so.
A Rolling Stone Gathers No Strokes
Decades ago, it was believed that the brain’s structure didn’t change after achieving adulthood, that new neurons couldn’t be formed. However, in recent years, researchers have discovered that the brain does retain a certain degree of plasticity throughout our lives. Neural stem cells constantly replenish our brains with fresh neurons. And, one of the best ways to optimize that ability to remold the brain comes in the form of exercise.
In a recent study, one set of rats were placed in cages where they could run on a wheel for about 3 miles per day. The second group of rats were not allowed to exercise. The scientists discovered that while the first group of rats brains appeared the same under a CT scan, the second group’s neurons had developed branches that could cause over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system leading to increased blood pressure and heart disease.
A recent article from the Science Daily website, referring to UCLA research, discusses the effects of inactivity on the medial temporal lobe (which is responsible for conscious memory for facts and events). Taking a sample of people in the ages from 45-75, they discovered that inactivity was a major predictor for the thinning of the medial temporal lobe, and that the more hours spent sitting resulted in greater decline in that region of the brain. Scientists believe that such habits could be a precursor to cognitive difficulties and dementia in older adults.
In contrast to the above, researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that elderly people who engaged in regular exercise improved their cognitive, language, and attention skills by 1800% over a 24 week period as opposed to those who did were not involved with the exercise program. In addition to this, they discovered that a consistent exercise regimen resulted in a larger hippocampus (the section of the brain that regulates our performance on spatial reasoning and other cognitive tasks.) This created a reciprocating effect of neuron growth, cell survival, enhanced memory and learning, as well as increasing the molecules in the brain responsible for plasticity.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is also responsible for causing blood vessels in your brain to weaken, reduce its access to oxygen through narrowing, or rupture in what is referred to as cerebrovascular accident. Needless to say, a stroke can strongly inhibit your ability to write in several ways.
If the idea of your brain receiving less oxygen or hemorrhaging doesn't scare you, there are other incremental problems leading up to a stroke, which could stifle your creative ability. Inactivity has been linked to diabetes, anxiety, and depression as well. Each of these conditions come with their unique challenges when it comes to writing. High blood sugars make it difficult to focus. Both anxiety and depression inhibit the motivation needed to see a work to completion.
But, there is good news. Research shows that exercise can actually replace hours spent sitting down. It also identifies that sitting and being sedentary are two separate things. For example, sitting by itself is not going to hurt you, so long as you create blocks of time where you are active throughout the day. Which means its okay to sit and read or write, but punctuate it with brisk walks outside, or at a gym if you don't have any other option.
Yes, yes, but what does it all mean?
Well, or starters, the less time you're active, the less energy your body spends repairing or replacing aging brain cells. Without fresh neurons, the length of time it will take you to recall a synonym, or the details of the research you did on the mating habits of wombats, will lengthen considerably. Holding ideas, and the relationships between them, will take greater effort. Your visualization skills will decline. And you could run the risk of heart disease, diabetes, renal failure, blindness, and/or stroke.
Could you continue to write and not exercise? Yes, you could. But why make a task, which can be frustrating on its own, even more so? Many of us pick up our favorite brown liquid to help sharpen our focus. We do it because it takes less effort than walking for thirty minutes a day. Yet, the single best way to get the edge we need in our writing is by daily exercise.
More than a few famous authors have expressed how many great ideas came to them after a long walk at the park or around town. According to an article on the Writing and Wellness website; Orson Scott Card, J. K. Rowling, Dickens, and Thoreau were all avid walkers. And, from a more recent article from Psychology Today, we learn that there is a connection between movement and activation of the cognitive centers of the brain. And this benefit does not require sustained cardio to be effective. A relaxed pace, for thirty minutes, is all that is necessary.
A sedentary lifestyle not only increases your waistline, but also shrinks your brain matter. That writers block might not be from a lack of creativity so much as from not giving your body the proper amount of exercise to allow it to function at its best. While a majority of our work time is sitting at a computer, typewriter, or even an old fashioned pen and paper, we need to be active throughout the day to ensure that our brains continue to work at their most optimum for the work we demand of it.
I would love to hear from all of you. Do you have an exercise routine that works for you? Or are you considering putting one together after reading this post? Leave a comment below and let me know how you prepare your mind to write. You never know. Your system might be the one that helps someone else publish their book.