This summer, after a print-making demonstration, a young woman approached me with a question. "Can you say something about how important exercise is, or its impact on creativity…" she stumbled in the forming of the question. "You said, it was in Ricë Freeman-Zachery's Creative Time and Space."
Frankly I don't remember what all I talked about and wrote to Ricë about when she was writing that book. We'd long been having discussions about creativity and time and you can listen to one here.
But sometimes my views change (I'm only human). So I asked the young woman to be more specific about what she wanted to know and we fumbled through to the one thing that hasn't changed throughout my life which is my belief in the way exercise helps feed my creative engine.
Note: I'm not a doctor so before you change your level of physical activity check with your doctor. And if you’re older line up a good massage therapist before you go all crazy!
Since we were talking semi-privately, it was just this young woman and one of my close friends who had come to see my demo (other people were off shopping for the products I’d been using), and the young woman seemed to need to “really” know, and she was young enough that she could still make a change in her life, I came brutally clean with her—“I’ve had chronic pain since I was 23 years old. I find that hard, extended, distance exercise produces endorphins to help deal with the pain (I don’t take any drugs for pain because they dull my brain).”
I told her I was a distance runner in my younger days but that now I ride my bike 17 to 25 miles a day during the spring, summer, and fall. (I don’t ride in the rain, or when there is snow or ice on the ground. And during the winter I ride my bike on a training device made by CycleOps which allows me to shift and zoom along, but which obviously is not as fun as riding outside.)
I told her that I don't exercise to look a certain way, or exercise with others, or exercise in competiton with others. I am out there pounding as hard as I can for me. (Though I do keep a log of various personal stats against which I judge my progress.)
I told her that some of my best ideas come to me when I’m riding (even when I’m riding inside).
But more important, when I return from a ride I may feel tired, but I feel energized and excited and ready to get working. And I feel a tremendous sense of having accomplished something—which sometimes is the only thing that really gets accomplished during that day, because of disruptions, family, clients, etc.
It’s mentally good to have one thing that gets fully done each day.
And if that one thing also energizes you and prepares you to push through the day it’s even better.
Exercise also creates stamina. If I didn’t exercise the way I do I would never be able to teach.
Anyone who has ever taken a class from me knows that in a typical full-day class I don’t sit down at all. I will have arrived a couple hours before class starts to set up the facility (having prepped materials on another day so I’ll be fresh in class), and then I will keep going until typically a couple hours after everyone is gone, because I’m breaking the room down and cleaning up.
When I teach a weeklong workshop I have to do that every day; day after day.
Stamina is essential for teaching. People show up needing to know stuff and you have to show them how to do something and explain it while you’re doing it, and move around and help them do it. All while keeping the game plan in your head. If you don’t have stamina it’s going to get ugly pretty soon.
As artists we need stamina every day in our lives, not just when and if we are teaching. We need stamina to finish the huge portrait of a bird we might be painting, or to push through a construction problem on a book structure we are devising.
We need stamina to think ideas through period.
Exercise gives you that.
So whatever I might have said to Ricë about exercise and creativity (I could go get the book down off the shelf and look it up) I probably have much the same opinion today, but the essence is
- creative realizations or aha moments
- pain management
- stamina (for every part of my life)
This past year I’ve watched the steady deterioration of Dick’s 92-year-old parents as they moved from independent to assisted living and then we transferred his mother to long-term care. I see in their transition how essential a role MOVEMENT plays in all our lives.
In June when I injured my shoulder and arm I went a little nuts because I saw the future where you can’t lift your arms to put on a t-shirt, can’t transfer yourself to a wheelchair, can’t walk the few necessary steps to bathe and care for yourself in 100 little ways we all take for granted. I saw their present. I see that my life’s habit of hard exercise every day has set me up to have a better extreme old age, should I make it there. And that same exercise habit makes it possible for me to fight back from injuries while still remaining productive.
Like many people, however, I doubt I could keep the exercise regimen going if it only promised future benefits. That’s why I mentioned all the present benefits it brings into my life. Who wouldn’t want to exercise if it brought more energy, stamina, and creativity into her life? If it made pain manageable? Now. Today.
No matter what age you are now or how fit or unfit you are now, I hope that in 2014 you will decide to improve your fitness level. Approach this change as you would when you establish any good habits—sensibly. Ask for medical guidance as needed. If you have specific limitations (such as being wheelchair bound) find a physical therapist who will work with you. There are wheelchair athletes zipping by me on the bikeway all the time!
Set up reasonable goals for increased activity. Find friends who will help you reinforce those goals. (These aren't people who will exercise with you, just people who understand how important exercise is to you.)
Don't tie your results to the behavior of a group. Each morning on the bikeway I pass many cycling groups in which some members are working hard while others are lollygagging. I have one rule: if you're talking you aren't working out hard enough.
Choose the healthy habit each day, all through the day, even when you’re sick, tired, or worn out. You have to choose it.
If you "fall down" one day, or something dire happens such as an injury, be kind to yourself and get back at it the next day or as soon as you have recovered.
Be aware that the benefits and results you’d hoped for might not come immediately, but stick at it. They will come.
But even more important, one day you’ll get up and you’ll find yourself putting on your shoes for your walk/run/cycle/swim/whatever and you’ll realize afterwards that it was as easy as breathing. You didn’t even think about it. It will have become a seamless part of your life that makes the rest of your life better.
You’ll see that impact in your creative life in 2014.