There has been a lot of press about health, fitness, and obesity lately. It seems like everywhere we turn, there are new stats telling us why we need to pay serious attention. As a health coach, the most common excuse I hear for physical inactivity is not lack of information, but lack of time. In this article, I’d like to explain why spending time working out also helps people work smart. In fact, I argue that the time invested in physical activity pays for itself in increased productivity.
For starters, I’d like to point out that only moving creatures have a brain. Living organisms that build roots and stay in one place all their lives may have an intelligence, but no physical brain. Creatures that move have to think in order to feed and defend themselves and survive. Harvard psychiatry professor, John Ratey, points out that it is therefore no surprise that movement generates the brain activity necessary for synaptic connections to be formed and maintained. In other words, moving facilitates learning and remembering, both of which are certainly very good skills for anyone who wants to work smart. In Ratey’s words, exercise is “Mental Miracle-Gro.”
Biochemicals at Work
According to Ratey and Doctors Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz, two other neurotransmitters produced during exercise are serotonin and dopamine. These chemical messengers make us feel good and increase our energy and motivation. The link between feeling good and doing well was already clear from previous positive psychology research by Diener, Biswas-Diener, Lyubomirsky, King, and Seligman. But for the skeptics who still want more concrete (physiological) evidence, research published by Subramanian and colleagues has shown that people solve creative problems better and with more insight when in a positive mood, probably because insight is generated in the same brain region as positive emotions. Creative and insightful problem solving? I say that’s productive!
Ratey and Registered Dietician, Elizabeth Somer, both point out that another helpful biochemical change caused by exercise is reduced cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone which modern lifestyles cause many people to over-produce. In a 2007 opinion survey, 55% of workers report being less productive at work as a result of stress. According to Nanette Mutrie and Guy Faulkner, a single session of exercise can reduce immediate feelings of anxiety.
If a single exercise session is impactful, working out regularly compounds the benefits. In an chapter called simply Toughness, authors Richard Dienstbier and Lisa Pytlik Zilling explain that aerobic activity improves the central nervous system’s resistance to depletion under stress. Toughness corresponds positively to performance in challenging tasks, enhanced learning abilities, and positive physical and psychological health – all good things that enhance the ability to work efficiently.
Performance at Work
But has anyone ever studied the direct impact of exercise on work performance? James Loehr and Tony Schwartz have, and they share their results in The Power of Full Engagement. Their work confirms that through increased energy, physical fitness produces higher engagement and better work results.
There would be a lot more to say on the topic, and I have a feeling more research is to come over the next several years. But for now, let me just add one final thought for all leaders and managers: inactivity compromises organizational productivity as much as it does employee health. Due to the contractual nature of your relationship with your staff, you are in a particularly good position to influence their lifestyles. Do something about it – it’s time to get moving!
Author’s Note: This article was inspired by a discussion following Sherri Fisher’s article, Nurturing Your Creative Mindset. It is also a follow-up to her article, When More Work Leads to Lower Achievement and to my earlier own article, When Overworking Leads to Underperforming.
Marie-Josee Shaar is the author of “Smarts and Stamina: the Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance.” Her mission is to reverse the current epidemics of sleep deprivation, obesity, depression, and physical inactivity. A Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP), she is certified as a Nutrition and Wellness Consultant and as a Personal Trainer. Please visit www.SmartsAndStamina.com for more information.