Three Ways to Be More Creative: Relax, Exercise and Sleep More

If you're stressed out, tired and out of shape, so is your brain. No wonder it's hard to come up with new ideas.

If late nights at work leave you groggy and ill-equipped to deal with a morning brainstorming session, here's why: The best ideas come from a healthy, rested brain.

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Despite the lore that bad habits go hand in hand with inspiration—think of Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh and other creative legends—research points in the opposite direction, says Daniel Amen, CEO of the Amen Clinics, which specialize in brain research. Amen believes that these hard-living artists were creative despite their lifestyles, not because of them.

Although scientists are only beginning to study the specific links between health and creativity, current research (not to mention common sense) suggests that for most of us, stress, sleep and fitness are key factors that influence our creativity. IT leaders who work long hours (such as the 24 percent of respondents to a survey by recruitment firm Harvey Nash in March who said they clock more than 56 hours a week) may not be at their best and most creative at a time when innovation is increasingly important.

Stress Kills Brain Cells

Continuous or intense stress can harm brain cells, brain structure and brain function, causing such side effects as memory problems or depression, according to neuroscientists.

Animal research offers clues about stress's effect on the brain. In one study reported by the Society for Neuroscience, when researchers stressed rats by restraining them, cells in the hippocampus—a brain area important for memory—withered. Other studies indicate that stress inhibits brain cell replacement in the hippocampus, which is one of the few areas of the brain that can create new cells throughout one's life. Both phenomena could affect brain cell communication and memory.

Sentara HealthCare CIO Bert Reese says stress is an "unnecessary distraction" from his work. He takes care to manage it with preventive measures such as exercise and by focusing deeply on the task at hand. To stay creative, he places a premium on family and downtime. "It is important for me to have quiet time to just let ideas flow," he says.

Exercise Gives New Ideas a Boost

Best-selling novelist and marathoner Haruki Murakami says running fuels his creativity. And if you've ever had that feeling of giddy invincibility after a great run or bike ride, you know exercise can make you feel sharper.

In the short term this is because exercise lowers stress, boosts blood flow to your brain and releases endorphins—neurotransmitters that suppress pain and give your body the feeling of a natural high.

How exercise affects the brain and creativity over the long term isn't well known. But recent studies have linked exercise to brain cell growth. In one study, published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, the brain cells in the hippocampus doubled in adult rats that exercised on running wheels.

Meanwhile, another study published in the Creativity Research Journal suggests a good workout makes creative ideas flow. Researchers randomly assigned 60 college students to three groups and then had two of the groups exercise. All three groups were given the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, a widely used method of assessing creativity. The two exercising groups were tested either immediately or two hours after exercising. Both groups scored higher than those who didn't exercise.

CIO Reese considers exercising crucial to his creativity, and makes a point to spend some brain-boosting time in the gym that's a stone's throw from his office.

Get Sleep, Get Answers

That sleep deprivation impairs performance and decision making isn't news. But a 2004 study published in Nature says that sleep is essential for creativity. It also helps explain why we awake in the morning with the answer to a problem that eluded us the night before.

The study looked at 106 people who were asked to solve a series of math problems that contained hidden clues to the solution. Participants were trained in the task and then either allowed to sleep or asked to stay awake; they were then retested eight hours later.

Those who were allowed to sleep eight hours were almost three times as likely to solve the problems. Researchers think these participants may have thought about the problem during sleep.

"Not getting enough sleep decreases brain function, affects mood, memory and the ability to focus," says Amen. He recommends getting at least seven hours a night.

"Your brain is involved in everything you do," says Amen. "If it doesn't work right, you don't work right."

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