How Exercise Helps with Problem Solving, Planning, & Negativity

In my last blog post I talked about how regular aerobic exercise is like a no-strings-attached medicine for our neurotransmitter system (it increases the presence of GABA, serotonin, and endorphins to help us feel more upbeat and calm), and today I will talk about how regular aerobic exercise can help us to break free from mental ruts.

I hate mental ruts! And I hate them so passionately because I am prone to getting stuck in them. I hate them from experience!

I know that I’ve always been a bit of an OCD personality, and while that can be a good thing when it comes to finding the determination needed to accomplish goals, it can also be a destructive thing if the brain becomes fixated on something negative: a past mistake, a current problem that seems to have no solution, or a future scenario that is creating undue anxiety.

What sorts of things tend to thrust my mind into such an unproductive loop? Well, a simple list would include: lack of sunshine and fresh air, the presence of negative people in my day, heavy stress (whether work-related or personal), and a lack of exercise.

Thankfully, as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten much better at being proactive with self-care, and so I make it a point to walk away from negative people, limit my stress, get sun/fresh air when I can, and work out about five or six times a week.

Running is my particular exercise elixir, and it never ceases to amaze me how different the world (and my brain) can seem after a good run. Things that were causing me anxiety no longer seem so worrisome; my perspective on my past, present, and future finds needed optimism and clarity; and problems that once seemed confusing or overwhelming often find solutions after (or during) a run.

That is my experience, and here is a study that shines a little more scientific light on how running can help to clear the mental cobwebs:

A Dutch study in 2013 divided 96 people into two groups, half who were sedentary and half of whom exercised at least three times per week for the previous two years. People in these groups were then given tasks that involved both divergent thinking (used to generate new ideas with multiple solutions to problems) and convergent thinking (used to come up with one good solution for a problem). [1]

As you might have expected, the regular exercisers did better on both sorts of tasks (both of which measure key components of creativity), but one other noteworthy result of the study is that the physically fit people did better on the convergent-thinking tasks while exercising (riding a bike) than while at rest.

  1. This study and other findings about the antianxiety effects of aerobic exercise are discussed in the book by Scott Douglas.

The takeaways from the above study:

  1. Exercise helps us to be more creative and to brainstorm multiple solutions for our issues and stressors.

  2. Exercise can also provide us with important “AHA” moments when we might otherwise ruminate over the same “unsolvable” problem or issue that has been circling in our minds for hours, days, or weeks.

So, if you find yourself sitting on the couch or in your car or at your desk ruminating over an issue that seems insurmountable, get up and get some exercise. It usually helps to make the world seem a lot brighter, and it usually helps to make your issues seem a lot more manageable.

Michael Priebe is a writer and personal development coach who has studied psychology, literature, and print journalism. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he graduated with honors. and over the years he has used both fiction and nonfiction formats to write about health, sports, professional life, politics, relationships, and spiritual issues. He puts out a variety of spiritually inspiring content at The Lovely Grind, and he blogs about his life at He invites you to reach out to him on Facebook and Twitter.

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