The problem of writing is that you spend too much time in your own head. Even if you do it as a side hobby as I do, you can spend a lot of time imagining future plot twists or details for your characters and world. I’ve been editing short stories and poems recently, finally getting to the end of a couple of projects that have taken me years. During editing, I stare at words, cross them out, write another in, before crossing that out and going back to the original. It can be frustrating and maddening. That’s why I find it important to focus on exercise, at least a couple of times a week.
One of the benefits of exercise that doesn’t get talked about enough is the effect it has on your mental wellbeing. Typically, we talk about the physical benefits, the lower rate of disease, feeling fitter, losing weight etc. But it can really help your mental well-being as well. It gives you space to pause and think. If you get your body moving, it helps calm the brain. Focusing on the movement of the body instead of a screen or notebook is a great way to leave your worry behind you. Raising your heart rate is a simple way to feel better.
Exercise no only calms the worry and the anxiety, it helps the subconscious process ideas and help with blocks. By doing something physical, you take your focus off the work and onto your body. Meanwhile, the subconscious is whirring away, forging connections and helping you out. It’s like getting ideas in the shower- you are focusing on other things and it gives you time for your mind to whirr away in the background.
Giving something physically demanding your all for an hour helps you to focus when you come to write. I often think words are easier once I’ve been to the gym or been for a swim. It’s practising your attention and focus on your body and forcing it to do something precise and demanding. When you come back and write, you have not only worked out your body, you have practised being focused. The state of full attention is easier to get back into.
This isn’t a secret. Many writers through history have discovered this. Dickens was a famous walker, charging through the countryside for long walks that challenged him physically:
“Whether on his night walks through London, or tramping through the Kent countryside, Dickens clocked up a huge number of miles on foot. He is estimated to have walked twelve miles per day – Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Dickens, says that he habitually walked twelve miles in two-and-a-half hours, with just a five-minute break. That’s 4.8mph, which is at the upper limit of human walking speed (Dickens himself estimates that his average walking speech was 4 mph), and Dickens maintained this in all weather”
Similarly, Stephen King and Haruki Murakami are well known runners, with Stephen King’s obsession showing in many of his books. Now, these are professional writers with a lot more time on their hand than most people, but even for those writing around day jobs it is immensely beneficial. In my experience, it helps to sharpen my time writing and allows me to focus.
I came to exercise relatively late, only really starting when I was twenty five. I hated it in school, much preferring to bury my nose in a book. The annual cross-country race filled me with dread. I didn’t understand why anyone would want to push themselves physically when you could sit inside and learn instead.
But since I started it has helped me focus when I write and helped calm my mind at other times. I usually opt for swimming. Each stroke has to be precise, each breath measured. There’s no time to think or worry as you glide through the water. Swimming is physical meditation, the closest you can get to Zen exercise. It’s struggling to move through a hostile environment. The immediacy of the stoke and the coldness of the water practically shocks the worry out of you, while your thumping heart drowns out any stray thoughts. It’s calm under the water as you move through it. You can’t hear anything but the muffled voices of another realm up above.
Ryan Holliday argue that running is the key to good writing, but I think this is too narrow a focus. Running is a solitary, difficult exercise that you may not enjoy. Instead of doing something you may not enjoy, you need anything that will raise your heartbeat and force you to focus on your body and not the page. Any exercise will do as long as you enjoy it. As a writer, you need to step away from the desk and allow ideas to permeate in your mind. It gives you a break and helps connect you with your body. Any exercise you do is looking after yourself so you can get back to the page and give it your all again.