It’s common knowledge that exercise makes you stronger, fitter and healthier, both mentally and physically. But it has many other, lesser-known benefits—like helping you get more done at work. That may seem like more of a benefit for your employer than for you, but when you’re more productive on the job, you’ll be less stressed, will spend less time in the office and will be better able to enjoy your downtime when you’re off the clock.
Benefits of Exercise for Workplace Productivity
So, how does exercise make you a more efficient employee? It might seem counterintuitive since you have to spend time away from your tasks in order to exercise, but the effects of even a short amount of physical activity will extend throughout the entire day.
When you work out, blood flow to the brain is increased, which makes you more alert, says Dr. Lina Velikova, M.D., Ph.D. of MedAlertHelp. In fact, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, a protein that has been shown to boost cognitive abilities, is triggered by exercise.
Exercise can also help to prevent the mid-afternoon slump (aka, the post-lunch coma) that can leave you struggling to keep heavy eyelids open. "Workouts boost our energy and make us more awake," Dr. Velikova explains.
Nina Amir, a certified high-performance coach, works with clients specifically to help them boost their energy levels to reach their full potential in their daily lives. "Most people think they either have energy or they don't—they don't realize they can generate energy," she says. "People can level up their work performance by intentionally generating energy, and exercise is one way to accomplish that."
Physical activity has also been shown to improve mood and relieve anxiety, which are some of the main obstacles to a more productive day, notes Dr. Velikova. "When we’re exercising, we’re producing serotonin, which improves our mood and makes us less prone to stress," she notes.
And the benefits just keep coming: Exercising during the workday can also promote improved cognitive function, faster learning of new processes and improved focus and concentration. If you've been considering adding walking meetings to your day, know that a Stanford study found that people who walked had higher levels of creativity than those who remained sitting. In a study of three large workplaces that provided on-site fitness facilities, employees reported that their mood and performance were improved on days when they exercised at work compared to days when they do not. And if you're not sold just yet, research has also shown that exercise helps boost the immune system, which could help prevent you from having to take sick days, thus boosting overall productivity.
How to Incorporate Activity Into the Workday
Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, starts her workdays with different types of exercise, including spinning, Pilates, running, walking and stretching. "My workouts clear my head and boost my endorphins so I can head into work fully energized and in a great mood," she says. Sweeney also squeezes in mini bouts of exercise throughout the day. She often goes for walking meetings with her team, and leaves healthy snacks in her car so she has to get up and walk outside to get them. Sweeney also encourages her employees to get up and stretch as a group.
Not sure how to fit exercise into your already busy day? Try these strategies to boost productivity at work:
Take breaks often. Rather than working for hours on end without pause, Amir suggests getting up every 50 to 60 minutes to move your body. This could be a brief stretch, a walk around the block, a little tai chi, marching in place or a few jumping jacks. "The body is not meant to be stationary for long periods of time—it functions better when it moves," she explains. "As you move your body hourly, you stimulate blood flow, take in more oxygen and reset your brain, all of which help your focus."
Breathe. Even if you can't go for a run while at work, you can stand up and take 20 deep, forceful diaphragmatic breaths, Amir notes. "The brain needs oxygen to function at full capacity. If you need more focus at work, breathe," she suggests. Make this a mini exercise break by combining some gentle stretches with the breathing.
Stand up. Shana Schneider, founder of Fitstyle by Shana and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor, suggests holding meetings standing up. "So often, people slump in their chairs, focused on their phones or laptops," she says. "Standing meetings are good for the health of the whole body, and also pulls people away from their screens so they are forced to pay attention to the content of the meeting and what's being said." Even between meetings, she suggests taking advantage of any opportunity to stand up.
Walk outside daily. Just 30 minutes of walking each day can do a world of good for your mindset, focus and problem-solving abilities, says Amir. "This gentle exercise is a great way to stimulate creativity and get the heart and lungs pumping." If the weather precludes an outdoor stroll, climb up and down an indoor staircase or just do some laps around the inside of the building.
Work out several times per week. Not only does this regimen help you develop the ability to stick to other types of commitment—like work deadlines or the time blocking of projects—it also helps you feel better in general, Amir points out. "Feeling good supports your productivity, as does the fact that a workout—before work or at lunchtime—will provide the oxygen your brain needs and produce the super hormones that help you feel amazing," she explains.
Generate energy. When they feel tired, high performers do whatever is necessary to raise their energy levels, whether that’s a quick nap, a short meditation session or movement of any type. "This could be a short run, or 15 minutes of weight lifting or pushups, squats and lunges (no equipment necessary)," says Amir. "Or try a short amount of yoga to work the body and calm the mind, both of which go a long way toward increased productivity."
Next time you’re feeling sluggish, stuck or just uninspired at work, try boosting your motivation with a burst of movement. In addition to burning some extra calories and activating your muscles, you just might be surprised by how the activity jump-starts your productivity.