It’s nearing midnight when James Harris III runs through the mostly vacant streets of lower Manhattan. As he dodges the occasional drunk pedestrian, Harris runs faster. Despite his heavy panting, he never stops. His goal for tonight is five miles, the distance between his girlfriend’s apartment and the East River. Two hours following his run, he’ll be on his computer. But not Facebook, he’ll be studying.
“I always study better after a run,” said Harris, 22, a junior English major at Sarah Lawrence University. Harris stays in New York City every weekend with his girlfriend. And, every night, he runs for an hour. Afterward, on top of his schoolwork, Harris studies in preparation for the LSAT. His dream of attending a top-ranked law school relies heavily on this score. And, his studying hinges on the nightly run: “Running clears my mind. I feel like I organize myself when I run. I know exactly what I need to do.”
In a generation powered by the Internet, there are constant stimuli available to distract students. From Facebook to Twitter to the latest episode of “Mad Men,” a student’s brain is overwhelmed with possibilities. To clear their minds, students flock to their local gyms for exercise, and they might be getting more than they expected from the treadmill. Turns out that, the old stereotype of the dumb jock is outdated; exercise might make college students more intelligent. And it isn’t just their grade point average that’s increasing. There’s growing evidence that exercise directly influences brain functions such as creativity.
A group of scientists at Rhode Islands College conducted a study in which students were asked to perform creative tasks before and after an aerobic workout. The test examined when a student was most capable of completing a creative project. The scientists applied the Torrance Test of Creative thinking a usage test to determine a person’s ability to think of as many uses as possible for a random object. On top of that, the scientists implemented an impossibilities task in which the test participants had to think of as many impossibilities as possible in a given situation. The study showed that students were most successful at completing these tasks following a strenuous, aerobic workout. In particular, the study also showed that the participants were just as creative two hours after exercising as they were immediately following their workout. Exercise appears to have a residual effect on the brain’s capacity for creativity.
“The score was virtually the same,” said Dr. Stephen Ramocki, a professor of marketing at Rhode Island College. Ramocki focused on cardio exercise’s effect on participants because of the mysterious “runner’s high” phenomenon. “This showed us that the endorphins in the brain last for at least two hours following exercise.”
For well over a decade, Ramocki has led several studies exploring how exercise affects creativity, and has written a book about his work,“Teaching Creativity in Marketing and Business Communication.” His goal is for companies to start encouraging these practices and to mandate their workers to exercise before work. But, other than a mention in an edition of Psychology Today, his studies have failed to draw significant public attention. “Over the last seventeen years, I’ve been trying to get marketing educators around the world to formally teach creativity,” said Ramocki. “It is pulling teeth to get people to teach creativity.”
Amongst the highly creative students at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, many exercise before working on their latest screenplay or song. A senior film student, Blake Lyons, 22, goes to NYU’s Palladium gym at least four times a week. “I go in the evening, so I can work through some film editing later,” said Lyons. “I see the film’s frames a lot clearer after a workout. It’s really helpful for structuring film reel. It’s easier to see how the different scenes will transition.”
Exercise leads to creativity through emotional control. In a study by kinesiology researchers at the University of Maryland, assistant professor J. Carson Smith compared the effects of exercise on stressed students against time spent quietly alone. The study proved that both 30 minutes spent alone and a 30 minutes of aerobic exercise reduced stress levels in college students. Exercise increased the synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain to improve the students’ emotional state. When shown graphic or disturbing images, the students were more control of their emotions following a period of exercise.
“I feel in control of myself after I exercise,” said Harris. “I exhaust myself running, so I’m really just able to sit still. I don’t stress out over what else is going on. I just process what’s in front of me. Usually, that’s just a textbook.”
Exercise has an effect in the classroom. New York Times writer Tara Parker-Pope describes how intense exercise is linked with raising college students’ grades. In one such study, researchers at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan recorded GPAs against exercise habits of 266 college undergraduates. Students who exercised routinely received on average a 3.4 GPA. This was a .4 higher grade point average than the 3.0 average GPA of non-exercising students. That’s the difference of a B to nearly an A minus. The study also offered a corollary between the durations of workouts and study time. Students often study for just as long as they’d work out at the gym. Their focus lasts just as long in physical work as with their mental work.
Lyons admits that his focus often lasts about the span of his workout. Following a three-hour workout, Lyon will often grab a meal to make up for any lost nutrients. Then, he’s up in the editing room for several hours. Like his workout, he edits for about three hours before his energy wears out. “Eventually, my mind doesn’t really understand what I’m seeing,” said Lyon. “My eyes get really heavy and the images all start to blur together. I could always keep working, but my work isn’t as good. I’m no longer so creative. It’s more just exertion.”
Although exercising stimulates students to study better, studying while exercising still appears too arduous. “I’ve tried to read a book or study notes while on a treadmill,” said Jodi Fitzgerald, 20, a junior pre-med student at the University of Florida. “It’s hard to read while you’re bouncing up and down.”
Despite his studies stalling in recent years, Ramocki remains persistent about connecting exercise with creativity. He offers extra credit to his marketing students for participation in exercise groups. After they run, his students must write in a journal. At the end of the semester, Ramocki grades their extra credit based on their writing’s creativity. “What is education about? It’s about improving the individual,” said Ramocki. “And that’s just as much physical as it’s mental.”