Writing may be an act of mental exertion, but physically? Not so much. Most of us lean back in comfy chairs, work at ergonomically designed desks, and get up only when our bladders demand it. Our biggest risk of injury is carpal tunnel.
Some authors have made the successful switch to standing or even walking desks to offset the well-documented risks of sitting for long periods of time day after day. But you don’t have to invest in a new office setup to reap the rewards of motion. Incorporating movement into your writing day combats the monotony of physical stillness that can hurt your body—and your brain.
A 2017 study out of Stanford determined sitting down inhibits creativity, and walking (even indoors on a treadmill) encourages it. Whether you prefer a stroll around the block or sweating it out in a hot yoga class, movement should be considered a non-negotiable part of your writing routine.
It’ll Improve Your Mood
Nothing will dampen your mood quicker than a subpar writing sesh. We may poke fun at the stereotype of the “tortured artist,” but persistent low-level stress and discouragement are no joke. As writers, we have to constantly battle negative self-talk and internalized criticism (not to mention the critiques and rejections from others). Movement can go a long way to changing your disposition.
A 2017 study found that even just a single exercise session can enhance mood, decrease stress levels and even increase energy. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins and serotonin—chemicals in your brain that make you feel happier. And when your mood is improved, it’s easier to push through the challenging moments and face the blank page with enthusiasm.
It’ll Strengthen Your Memory
Exercise isn’t just good for your mood—it’s been linked to improved recall as well. When we move, we increase blood flow to the brain, which enhances our ability to remember. And having a strong memory is an invaluable tool for any writer. Details, dialogue, and sensory information—all elements of great writing—are easier to recall when we move. Having access to vivid memories from your life experiences can help inform the story and bring it to life.
While any kind of physical exercise can help, a study out of Dartmouth College found that different exercise intensities enhanced different types of memory. Light exercises like walking improved episodic memory (details of everyday events or experiences), and high-intensity exercises like running improved spatial memory (the ability to remember the location of objects). So depending on your project, you can tailor your exercise regimen to optimize the type of memory you’ll need.
It’ll Help You Process Problems
Crafting a story is a never-ending lesson in the art of problem-solving. You have to find the right structure, develop complex characters, and navigate tricky plot points—the list goes on and on. And while it’s often tempting to sit and stare at the computer screen, research shows getting up and moving can help you process these problems more effectively.
A 2021 study found that exercising improved divergent thinking: the ability to come up with multiple potential solutions to a single problem. This kind of cognitive functioning is essential for writers, who are constantly navigating creative problems and need to evaluate different angles in order to develop a clear narrative. The better you are at generating ideas, the easier it will be to see your way through a story.
How the Greats Move
Even though a lot of this research is recent, the link between writing and movement isn’t a novel concept. Most of the greatest writers in history had their own brand of physical exercise they used to fuel their creativity. If you’re struggling to find the motivation to incorporate movement into your writing day, taking a page from their books may help.
Joyce Carol Oates
The brain behind masterpieces such as Black Water and Blonde is also a passionate jogger. In a 1999 interview with The New York Times, she revealed that running wasn’t just a way to stay in shape—it was also a sacred part of her writing routine. She said: “In running, the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.”
The Japanese author of classics like Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood puts himself on a very strict exercise regime when he’s in the midst of writing a novel. He gets up at 4 a.m. to write for five or six hours and then spends his afternoons either running six miles or swimming 1,500 meters—or both. He said: “I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
The renowned author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle makes it a habit to visit his town’s municipal swimming pool every day to do laps for half an hour. He also squeezes in some exercises throughout his day. He said: “I do pushups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.”
How Will You Move?
Everyone has their own approach to physical exercise. Personally, I’m a big fan of yoga. This Yoga for Writers playlist on Youtube is fantastic, as is Eloise Greene’s yoga stretching sequence. But no matter how you do it, movement should be an essential part of your writing routine. Even if you only have five minutes, incorporating exercise can help you feel better, think clearer, and craft a more compelling tale.
If you need extra support in creating a writing routine that will keep you motivated all the way through to publication, check out my book coaching services. Through customized, one-on-one book coaching, I’ll help you create a writing practice that’s uniquely tailored to your goals and lifestyle. Finishing that first draft is never going to feel like a breeze, but with the right support and routine—including movement—you can make the process more manageable.