Stay Active, Stay Ahead: How Exercise Fuels Work Performance

In today’s fast-paced business environment, maximising productivity and maintaining high levels of job performance are critical. One of the most effective tools for enhancing might be physical activity. Despite the recognized benefits of physical activity for overall health and well-being, there has been little research into its effects on work-related outcomes like job performance.

The Link Between Physical Activity and Job Performance

Recent shifts towards more flexible work arrangements have led to decreased commuting and more sedentary lifestyles, making it more important than ever to incorporate physical activity into our daily routines. In 2008, Jo Coulsen and her colleagues at the University of Bristol were amongst the first to report on the relationship between exercise at work and job performance. Coulsen used a survey to explore how frequency, duration and type of exercise during work hours impact perceived work performance. The results identified a positive correlation between workplace exercise and self-reported performance, with higher frequencies of exercise associated with better performance ratings.

Whilst it is perhaps unsurprising that exercise lovers will derive cognitive and physical benefits from physical activity that boost their work performance, Yolanda Li and colleagues have shown that the benefits of exercise are independent of employees’ motivation to engage in physical activity. And so, even employees who dislike physical activity can experience enhanced job performance by incorporating some level of exercise into their routines.

Building Your Physical, Emotional and Cognitive Resources

Many aspects of physical health have been shown to be improved by regular physical activity. Exercise significantly reduces the risk and severity of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, thanks to mechanisms like improved insulin sensitivity and cholesterol profiles. Physical activity also plays a crucial role in mental health, helping to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders through both physiological and psychological pathways.

Moreover, exercise enhances bone health, assists in the management of nonspecific low-back pain, and contributes to a better overall quality of life by reducing all-cause mortality risks. These physical and mental health benefits create a foundation that supports not only personal well-being but also professional effectiveness.

A recent multidisciplinary review by Charles Calderwood and colleagues has also made clear that engaging in regular exercise yields significant improvements in cognitive functions critical to job performance, such as attention, processing speed, executive function and memory. These beneficial effects are facilitated by underlying brain mechanisms like neurogenesis and increased neurotransmitter production, which collectively facilitate neuroplasticity.

Finding the Right Exercise for You

It is clear then that physical activity helps us to replenish or collect personal resources – physical, emotional and cognitive – for use in the work domain to the betterment of our work performance. But what type of exercise should you engage in, and how much is necessary? While more intense activities often offer greater benefits, the key is finding a sustainable level of exercise that you can enjoy and maintain long-term. Research led by Phillip Tomporowski at the University of Georgia suggests that aerobic exercises performed at a submaximal level are particularly effective at enhancing cognitive functions like problem-solving and decision-making.

It's important to remember that there's no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to the best mode, intensity or duration of exercise. Your personal circumstances and preferences play a significant role in determining what works best for you. However, the shift from no exercise to some exercise is where the most noticeable improvements in health, fitness and work performance occur.

Implementing Exercise into Your Routine

For business professionals, integrating exercise into a daily routine can be challenging but highly rewarding. Start by identifying small opportunities for activity, such as taking short walks during breaks or using a standing desk. Perhaps have a walking meeting. Gradually increase the frequency and intensity of these activities as they become a more routine part of your day.

In conclusion, while the benefits of exercise on physical and mental health are well-known, its impact on enhancing work performance is equally compelling. By making physical activity a regular part of your life, you're not just investing in your health, you're also enhancing your capacity to perform at your best in the professional arena. Whether you're a seasoned athlete or a reluctant beginner, remember that any exercise is better than none. Start small, stay consistent, and watch as your work performance soars.

Professor Emeritus Simon Jobson and Dr Dominic Ir