Exercise and The Mind

According to Dorothea Brande, a creative writing guru from the nineteen twenties, most creativity ‘happens’ when the writer is doing something non-word-related.  When the brain is concentrating on nothing in particular.  Chewing linguistic cud.

The trouble is that my brain doesn’t have time to chew cud.  Driving?  Listening to Radio 4.  Eating breakfast?  Talking to Toddler.  Toddler and Tiddler playing together?  Reading the Guardian (are you surprised?) online.  Standing at a bus-stop?  Facebook.  I even watch TV or hands-free chat with friends when I am knitting.


Our modern brains just don’t chew cud like brains used to do in the twenties.  I’ll bet that even Dorothea’s reknown creativity didn’t extend to imagining me text-messaging a friend, who text-messages me right back with one hand while loading her dishwasher with the other.

I discovered Dorothea because Hilary Mantel swears by her methods.  In my little inflated head I would probably have pipped Hilary Mantel to both her Booker prizes, had I been following Dorothea rather than consoling people I don’t even know on discussion forums.

But I can’t help myself:  I lurve the social media.  I also have Tiddlers. And so my brain is interrupted all the time.  By rights, my (otherwise obviously phenomonal) creative potential should be dead…..

All that aside, I worry that the constant mental stimulation of the modern existance might have other, more real downsides.  When do we get chance to think about ‘stuff?’  To put ideas into perspective?  To reflect?  To listen to our souls?

The answer for me is in bed at night, when I should be trying to sleep. Or when I go out running or walking.  Exercise and mental peace is like a ‘reset’ button on my brain.  This runs in the family: my Dad also goes out for a long walk when the world gets too stressful for him.

‘I’m goin’ walkin’ he says.  ‘On me own.’

I used to make fun of it.

Here is a friend of mine on the subject.  “Sally” doesn’t like Winter: she suffers from SAD, Seasonal Affected Disorder.  This is a common form of depression that coincides with short daylengths. Now that Spring has arrived, she is probably coming to the end of wishing she was in hibernation.  Yet Sally has remained functional: she has still been getting out of bed in a morning.  She keeps her part-time professional job.  She cares for her Toddler.

This is possible because Sally has explored treatments to improve her Winters.  These tend to have plenty anecdotal but very little scientific evidence behind them and include things like: alarm lamps that simulate the dawn as the patient wakes up; cannabis as a mood stabiliser; St John’s Wort (although female users should be aware that this renders The Pill ineffective); diets high in antioxidants; vegetables; cognitive behavioural therapy (which is hopefully better proven) and singing.  Sally however, has her own anecdote as to the therarpy that works best.  And that therarpy is….


‘I’m fed up,’ says Sally, ‘…of hearing people talk about going to the gym to loose weight or get fit.  The mental benefits of exercise get overlooked completely.  I go to the gym to do kettlebells, to get blood pumping to my head. It’s so good for you!

‘If I can drag myself outside for a run, I feel better.  Because of the endorphins I suppose, and the daylight.  And using your muscles. The better I feel, the more I want to go out.  It’s a vicious cycle. I love exercise.’


My last anecdotal proof of exercise being good for the mind, is a man my husband and I met some years ago on the banks of the river Ghanges.  He was a small man with collar-length dark hair and a neat little pointy beard. He wore white, baggy clothes, bare feet and glided about like a good little ghost: you could still feel alone when he was in the room, so light and benign was his presence.  I spent time with him every day for eight days and knew as much about him at the end of that time as I had done at the beginning. He rarely smiled and hardly spoke above a whisper although he had a good chanting voice. But I never doubted that he was happy.

What did he do all day?

Yoga, of course.



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