Originally published July 8, 2020 in the Durango Herald.
By Nicole Clark
I’ve thought about writer’s block a fair amount this week.
Not just because I’m experiencing it, but also because it seems to mimic a state familiar to writers and non-writers alike. That feeling of being in a rut, a funk, frustrated or unstimulated. Have you been there?
The clock is pressuring me to stay in front of the computer, to get words on paper and ideally to do so with some degree of meaning and entertainment. In my head, I hear the question I’ve asked of others many times, “What are you doing when you come up with your best ideas, feel the most creative or the most alive?” Not once has anyone responded “sitting in front of a computer.”
Rather, people tend to discover new ideas, inspiration and elation by doing pleasurable things that take their minds off the task at hand. The answers vary to some degree, but inevitably, physical activity makes the list. Walking, running, biking, dancing, yoga. I’ve even heard cleaning.
You’ll notice the term used was physical activity, not exercise. Similar terminology, but distinct in meaning. Exercise is a form of physical activity, distinguished by the fact it is planned and conducted with enough intensity to significantly increase heart rate over a period of time.
Physical activity also includes movement. Contrary to exercise, it’s unplanned, unstructured, sporadic and less likely to get your heart rate up, at least for an extended period of time.
For many, describing exercise as pleasurable is a stretch. In the moment, you’re hot, uncomfortable and everything hurts. To top it off, when you finish, you look exactly the same as you did before you started, but sweatier. There is no immediate gratification of a six pack in your mid-section, calves that look like baseballs, nor do you suddenly fit into your clothes better. And, you’re supposed to do this 150 minutes a week?! These associations with exercise certainly don’t paint a picture of inspiration.
Because we respond well to instant gratification, let’s circle back to the impact of physical activity on mental health. I’ll get to the science, but experienced exercisers call it a “runner’s high.” Even the novice exerciser can be heard saying, “I’m glad it’s over, but I’m glad I did it (physical activity).” It’s because it feels good to move.
Exact mechanisms explaining why exercise positively affects mood are not entirely clear. One meta-analysis suggests multiple factors, both physiological and psychological. Here are a few.
- Endorphins (hormones) secreted during physical activity stimulate a sense of euphoria and reduce pain.
- Movement increases the number of mitochondria you have. One function of mitochondria is to uphold the health of nerve cells, including neuroplasticity. Declining nerve cell health is associated with mood-related disorders.
- Movement distracts us from negative thoughts and ruminations. Upon completion, it builds self-esteem via self-efficacy.
- Improved immunity reduces inflammation, which also supports the health of nerve cells.
There appears to be a dose-dependent effect between physical activity and mental well-being. That said, start with what you’re capable of doing. Any activity refreshes a sense of well-being, vigor and cognitive functioning, such as problem-solving, memory, decision-making and attention. And, it’s immediate.
Case in point, a mere 30 laps around my house, writer’s block is cured and (subjective) mental well-being remains high. As for accomplishing meaning and entertainment, I’ll leave that to your discretion.
Nicole Clark is the family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-6461.