Let’s Get Physical: Benefits of Exercise for Writers
Benefits of exercise for writers. It may be time to remodel that couch potato attitude… for the sake of your writing!
I was reading an article the other day about the daily routines of twelve famous writers, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that many of these routines have something in common…
Besides writing, that is. Out of the twelve routines analyzed, three of the twelve included a strong and healthy component of physical exercise.
A year ago, I probably would’ve turned my nose up at Haruki Murakami’s practice of swimming 1500 meters or running 10 kilometers (or both) after finishing his daily writing. That’s because, a year ago, I was just coming off from several years of being a certified couch potato. A Couch Potato, capital C, capital P. Depression can do nasty things to you, like make you want to sit on the couch all day! (Not saying that all couch potatoes are depressed, just saying that the depression I suffered for a few years of my life probably had some bearing on the way I approached physical fitness — and vice versa. We’ll get to that in a little bit.)
Today, my routine is actually pretty similar to Murakami’s. Like him, I get up very early in the morning — around 4:45 AM. Currently, I have to take a break from writing to walk the dog, but that’s good for clearing the mind anyway. After that, I work from around 6:30 AM till 11:30 AM — five solid hours. At around 2 PM, I take a swim. I’m not quite as fit (yet) as Murakami, so I keep it to a conservative 800 meters or so. Sometimes I run or do calisthenics, too. Then I work coaching swimming lessons for a couple hours. In the evening, after dinner, I may write a little more, or I may not.
Anyway, why am I talking about the benefits of exercise for writers? Because, in my experience, they exist. And at the core of things, writers are just people, and you and I both know that people benefit from exercise. Let’s talk some specifics about the pros you’ll see if you start an exercise regimen along with your writing routine.
1. Both exercise and writing routines require discipline. Maintaining a discipline makes you, well, more disciplined.
And the more disciplined you are, the easier it will be to maintain a discipline. It’s circular. A system that feeds off itself. If you exercise regularly, in a disciplined fashion, it’ll be easier for you to develop and stick to a writing discipline. This is why I put this point at the top of the list of benefits of exercise for writers.
Self-discipline is something that’s very important to me as a person and as a writer. If I mean to be successful in life and in writing, I must be disciplined. I must write with consistency. And to write with consistency and discipline, I must feel well in all aspects of myself. This brings me into my next point…
2. Exercise is good for your mind and mental health.
I’m sure that you’ve heard of the connection between exercise and mental health before. Here’s an article, if you want to explore it a little more deeply than I’m going to here. Suffice to say that numerous studies have affirmed a link between physical activity and mental health benefits — reduced risk of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
Another hotly debated question revolves around the link between writing (and other creative pursuits) and mental illness. Several studies over the years have concluded that writers are in fact more prone to mental illness than your average person. Here’s an article about why this might be the case. (Keep in mind that it’s a chicken and egg situation — are people prone to mental illness attracted to creative pursuits like writing, or do creative pursuits like writing increase the risk of mental illness?)
I’m a writer, and I’ve struggled with mental health issues throughout my life — and continue to struggle with them to this day. And, no, I’m not the best mental health role model, because I’m no longer in therapy, though I probably should be. But I have gotten better over the years. I owe a lot of that to growing up, but I also owe a lot of it to improved habits. One of those habits is exercising. Exercise tires me out. It makes me feel better. It helps my mind to stop racing. It provides another outlet for my energy when I’m bouncing off the walls and energizes me when I’m feeling low. It helps keep my mind well, so that I can write well.
I try to exercise even on days when I don’t feel like exercising. Because I know well enough that not exercising can create a vicious cycle. No exercise equals lack of self-discipline which equals beating myself up over it which equals a loss of motivation which, in the end, could produce depression. I recognize that the cycle may not be so vicious for everyone. But regardless of who you are and what your experiences have been, exercise will benefit your mental health, and good mental health will benefit your writing. Don’t believe otherwise. When you’re in the throes of a deep depression, it can feel nearly impossible to write. I’ve been there. Did it, in a perverse way, give me inspiration for things to write after the fact? Yes. Do I ever want to go back? No.
3. Exercise gives your mind a break, tires you out, and can provide flashes of inspiration.
Ah, inspiration. That most fleeting of things. You’ve probably heard that you can’t wait for inspiration. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek it out. And for me, exercise provides much-needed flashes of inspiration from time to time. Exercise, by nature is a repetitive activity. While I’m swimming lap after lap, I focus on my breathing and on counting my strokes. A repetitive chain of numbers fills my head. But I also think about other things, in between. Pieces of imagery come floating to me out of nowhere. When I get out of the water, I scramble to write them down.
Other places you might look for inspiration are the shower and the kitchen. Some of my best ideas come to me when I’m relaxing in the warmth of a hot shower, after a tiring exercise session! Or when I’m cooking something a little less-than-healthy as a reward for that tiring exercise session. (Keep in mind that it’s homemade, so it’s automatically more healthy than almost anything you could get at a restaurant.) And you’ve got to treat yourself every now and then. But peeling potatoes. Great way to find inspiration. Or stirring soup. You get the idea.
I imagine that some other types of exercise, like biking, would be even better for finding inspiration. All the sights you would see! Taking walks is great, too. Find a buddy, grab your masks (and cheers to those reading this in a future time far removed from COVID-19), and hit the road.
4. You’ll sleep better if you exercise.
This might be one of the many reasons why exercise benefits mental health. And it’s also a reason why exercise benefits writers. As much as there’s that stereotypical picture of the writer who stays up late every night pounding away on the keyboard and who guzzles ten coffees and a couple RedBulls in the daytime to stay awake, that picture really isn’t your average writer. I’m going to make the bold claim that your average writer writes in the morning. This may or may not be true. There are tons of writers who write in the evening. But if we look back on that article about the twelve writing routines, I’ll tell you this — six of those writers attest to writing in the morning. The other six don’t attest anything about what time they write. So at least half of writers are probably morning writers.
And since we’re rising in the wee hours, just before the coming of the sun, we require some good sleep. Read this article about how exercise impacts sleep quality. You evening writers would probably benefit from exercising in the morning. It seems that evening exercise won’t lead to the same sleep quality results as morning and afternoon exercise.
5. Exercise extends your lifespan. And if you’re trying to eke out as much writing as you can over the course of your life…
… it would help if that life were long. When it comes to the benefits of exercise for writers, this is a big one to take away. Here’s an article about the effects of physical activity on lifespan. The takeaway: Exercise boosts life expectancy.
I, personally, never intend to retire. Why would I retire? I have an amazing life as a writer. Sure, if I end up getting a day job, I’ll retire from that as soon as possible. But as long as I can write, I want to live. And as long as I live, I want to write. If it’s the same for you — or if you’re passionate about anything in your life — I recommend a healthy dose of exercise. It doesn’t have to be every day, and it can start slow at first. It can stay slow, if that’s how you like it. But I suggest that you do something — anything — to get yourself off that couch or away from that desk and onto that bicycle or those open roads or into that swimming pool, a couple times a week or more.
I hope you enjoyed this reflection on the benefits of exercise for writers.
Can you think of more benefits? Do you have an exercise routine? Talk to me about anything in the comments!
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If you enjoyed this reflection, you might also like my thought-provoking piece on whether writing can become an addiction. And as always, thank you for your readership!
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