Three Ways to Balance Writing and Exercise

by Leanne Sowul
published in Writing

There are many fringe benefits that come with being a writer. Coffee, for instance: no one ever judges a writer for refilling her coffee mug, or for possessing large quantities of pens and notebooks, or going on a book-buying spree for “research” purposes. But there’s one big negative that can affect our health, happiness and even our quality of work: the “butt in chair” aspect of writing.

We writers sit a lot, and unfortunately, sitting is one of the biggest indications of poor health in Western society. “Regardless of how much physical activity someone gets, prolonged sedentary time could negatively impact the health of your heart and blood vessels,” American Heart Association chairperson Deborah Young says.* We writers need to live long, healthy lives so that we have plenty of experiences and enough time to write about them. But conventional writer wisdom, along with many successful authors, tells us that the “butt in chair” method is the only sure-fire way to make sure the writing gets done. How do we navigate this contradictory advice? How do we maintain a strong writing habit without spending too much time sitting?

As a writer who believes strongly in maintaining healthy habits, I struggled with this problem for a long time. In particular, I wrestled with how to spend my early-morning hours: should I write, or should I exercise? I’m a morning person, so early writing sessions are usually productive. But when I exercise instead, I feel better for the rest of the day, and that sometimes leads to more creative energy later. There didn’t seem to be a solution to the problem. I tried exercising and writing on alternate days, but the lack of consistency made both habits unstable. I tried exercising later in the day, but usually lacked the physical energy. I tried writing later in the day, but usually lacked the mental energy. Both habits were important. What to do?

It took some creative thinking, but I finally found a solution: I do both. I’ve found ways to exercise and write at the same time. Some of them involve keeping my butt in the chair, and some involve taking my writing on the road, but all lead to a marriage of productivity: physical and mental workouts, all rolled into one package.

Three Ways To Merge Your Writing And Exercise Habits

1) The Cardio Desk

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Gretchen Rubin’s Happier, when I heard her mention a gift she’d given to her sister, also a writer. The gift was a treadmill desk, which enabled her sister to write and walk at the same time. I thought this was genius. I’d heard of offices using treadmill desks, but never considered having one at home.

As it turns out, I just don’t have the space for such a large piece of equipment. But I found an alternative that’s much smaller and less expensive: an under-desk elliptical. I bought it for $89 on Amazon. I can write and pedal at the same time. My hands stay steady on the keyboard, and my elevated heart rate actually seems to help maintain the flow of my work. It feels like magic that I can now work and do cardio at the same time.

2) The Brainstorm Walk

We need to sit in order to do the actual writing, but brainstorming can be done anywhere. There’s no need to take that notebook to a coffee shop or the corner of your couch. When you’re working through a problem with your plot or characters, take it on the road. The changing views and fresh air will give you a new perspective, and you may find that your ‘brainstorming walks’ are even more productive than brainstorming at home.

Wondering how you’re going to jot down those brilliant ideas? Pick a walking location that includes the occasional bench, such as a college campus or a dedicated trail. Take a seat on a bench, write down your thoughts, then get up and keep walking. Or, if the bench system doesn’t work for you, use voice memos or talk-to-text on your phone. Just keep that phone in your pocket the rest of the time, because this activity won’t be successful unless you’re distraction-free.

3) The Re-Focus Yoga Flow

Even when you’re working hard at your desk, you need to take breaks. When the clock stops at the end of your Pomodoro, instead of clicking over to Facebook, get up and do some downward dogs, hip circles, or tree poses. I do a sun salutation every morning before I sit down at my elliptical/desk. It focuses my mind and slows my breathing so that I feel centered. It also provides a trigger for my writing time, a way to set the stage for my body and mind to enter full concentration mode.

Whether or not it’s concurrent with your writing time, it’s vital to get into the exercise habit. Take care of your body as well as your mind, and you’ll have more days of life to have adventures and gather stories. Then you can feel free to sit down and write them out!

*As reported to CBS news reporter Robert Preidt in August 2016.


Leanne Sowul is a writer and teacher from the Hudson Valley region of New York. She’s the curator of the website Words From The Sowul and authors the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. She writes historical/literary fiction and memoir; her work is represented by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary Agency. Connect with her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, or on Twitter @sowulwords.

  • Thanks for the positive post. Exercise is crucial and if I hadn’t started working out 17 years ago, I certainly wouldn’t be the person I am today.

    • Leanne Sowul

      Thank you, Jason. I agree- exercise can renew us in ways both physical and spiritual.

  • Sara Letourneau

    I think my brain loves walking as much as my body does. Because even though I walk for exercise more or less, something in my subconscious switches “on” then, and I get ideas for all sorts of things: my WIP, blog articles, etc. I even remember instances of getting “un-stuck” from a current writing problem during walks. That’s when a cell phone or journal comes in handy to jot down those notes before you lose them.

    And YOGA. I love how you’ve incorporated yoga into your writing process. (Wait a minute – didn’t we talk about this on Facebook recently?) I’d been thinking about how to do this for myself, and you may have just sparked the flame for me.

    Great post, Leanne! 🙂

    • Leanne Sowul

      We did talk about this, Sara! I may go more in-depth about yoga in another post, but just thinking about it helped this one come together. A yoga sequence is a great trigger for me to start work.

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