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December 19, 2012

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Working in the Word Mines: Exercise and Creativity

by Michael Langlois

Fun fact number one: writing is a sedentary profession.  The first tenet is AIC or Ass In Chair.  This often means 4 to 8 hours of near motionless staring and typing.

Fun fact number two: your brain hates that and will retaliate by stabbing you right in the creativity. Like it or not, your brain is a physical organ that is heavily influenced by the rest of you.  Fitness in general and recent exercise in particular have a significant impact on cognition.  There are a bucketload of studies that demonstrate this, if you want to read up on it.

Fortunately, fixing this is pretty easy, even for those of us that like to count coffee cup raises as ‘reps’.  For those that are wondering what the absolute minimum effective dose is, it’s about 30 minutes of brisk walking three times per week.  But frankly, that’s pretty weak sauce.  For best results, you want to hit 20-30 minutes of cardio per day, where your heart rate is some distance above from it’s resting rate.

You can get a basic idea of a good heart rate target here.  It takes about three seconds to figure out.  A metric is good, but now you need to measure.  If you have an iPhone, here’s an excellent heart rate monitor that uses your camera (similar to the way throwaway hospital pulse monitors work).   Here’s the Android version.  I’ve tracked these against a dedicated device and they’re surprisingly accurate.

The excuses for not exercising come from the same pool of suck as the excuses for not writing.  What works for me is combining the two into a single event.  Start your writing with a walk/run/chin-up marathon/burpee throwdown/whatever, and use the time to not only get your blood moving, but also as a chance to get away from your desk for a bit and clear your head.

If you follow Neil Gaiman’s blog or tweets, you know he frequently goes running to work out sticky bits in his stories.  It works.  Part of it is just letting yourself think about nothing in particular.  If you’ve ever had an epiphany in the shower or while driving, you know what I’m talking about.  But doing it while exercising works even better, since thinking while moving is what humans do best.

The results are non-trivial.

This is something that I’ve been aware of for some time, but it really hit home in the last couple of months.  I’d let myself fall out of the habit of regular exercise sessions since  I was putting in a ton of hours on the final draft of Liar’s Harvest.  Priorities, right?  I’d just let it slide.  Huge mistake.  I wasted a ton of time staring at the screen and making crappy revisions.

Fortunately for me, while casting about for a way to procrastinate and avoid more painful writing sessions, I picked my exercise routine back up.  Guess what?  I had to stop my first workout before I was finished to run downstairs and jot down a fix for a passage I’d been struggling with.  I kept my daily routine up through the completion of the book and it made a world of difference.  Higher daily word counts, easier to get started, less time feeling stuck on a difficult section.

Oh yeah, and I feel better.  So there’s that, too.

There are ton of reasons why you can’t find half an hour to exercise every day.  But none of them matter as much as the reasons why you should.

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