ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2023, Vol. 31 ›› Issue (3): 455-466.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2023.00455

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Legs move, thoughts flow: Physical exercise influences creative thinking

LI Qingyang, YIN Junting, LUO Junlong()   

  1. Department of Psychology, Shanghai Normal University, Shanghai 200234, China
  • Received:2022-06-07 Online:2023-03-15 Published:2022-12-22
  • Contact: LUO Junlong


Creative thinking is the ability to generate novel and useful solutions to a problem, of which divergent and convergent thinking are two common types. Evidence shows that physical exercise may influence these two types differently. For divergent thinking, the beneficial effect on creative flexibility and originality is larger than fluency. Although there is no consistent conclusion yet regarding convergent thinking, most studies show that physical exercise is not related to or even detrimental to convergent thinking; however, some studies have found the exercise facilitation when the convergent thinking task is thought-directed.
Many factors moderate the effect of physical exercise on creative thinking. (1) The optimum exercise intensity varies at different exercise frequencies; moderate intensity proves more beneficial in the case of acute exercise, while higher intensity is needed for long-term exercise. (2) Regarding exercise forms, free exercise such as free walking is more effective than restricted exercise such as treadmill walking. (3) In the simultaneous paradigm, the best exercise duration for creative thinking is 20-30 minutes, while in the relay paradigm, the exercise duration of 5 minutes to 1 hour is effective, which might include some time-delay effect. (4) Compared with children and older people, exercise effect on young adults is lower due to the ceiling effect; The effect is less likely to be seen in children aged 6-13 than in children of other ages who are undergoing physical and mental developmental changes. (5) Individuals who are physically fit and those with an exercise habit show stronger convergent thinking after exercise.There are theories that explain the effect of physical exercise on creativity: the mood hypothesis, the executive function hypothesis, and embodied metaphor theory. The mood hypothesis has two perspectives: the one which considers only emotion valance, suggesting that positive emotions triggered by exercise facilitate creative thinking and negative emotions undermine it; and the other which considers both mood activation, suggesting that both positive and negative emotions that are activated rather than deactivated can enhance creative thinking, but using different routes. Controversy remains in the executive function hypothesis, moreover, with some researchers arguing that physical exercise enhances creative thinking by depleting cognitive control resources. Nevertheless, in recent years an increasing number of studies have found beneficial effects of physical exercise on executive function, with some claims that improvements in creative thinking are dependent on improvements in some executive functions, such as working memory capacity and cognitive inhibition. Embodied metaphor theory suggests that abstract concepts are metaphorically grounded in concrete experience; creative thinking can be likened to free movement or specific gesture, thus inspiring divergent and convergent thinking.
Further exploration of the relationship between exercise and creative thinking is demanded in the future. Above all, emphasize the normative and scientific aspects of research and expand the scope to include non-intellectual factors of creative thinking, such as emotional creativity and creative personality. Furthermore, more neuroscience research should be conducted further to reveal the mechanism underlying the complex effects of exercise on creativity. Additionally, pay attention to the mechanisms that influence creative thinking through exercise in different population groups, with a view to expanding the scope of research to include young children, older people, and special groups. Finally, the relationship between physical exercise and creative achievement will be explored, especially the long-term and even permanent effects of physical exercise on creative thinking, enabling us to provide scientific support for the exercise prescriptions to improve the public's creativity.

Key words: physical exercise, creativity, divergent thinking, convergent thinking

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