Productive things to do: physical activity

May 17, 2016 7:00:00 AM

running-treadmill.jpgSometimes life gets busy. Things at work pick up, you’re traveling a ton, and you’ve said yes to one too many events. In an effort to squeeze it all in you skip your morning run, put your gym membership on hold, and toss your yoga mat aside. You simply can’t waste time working out. But while skipping out on your exercise routine may buy you a few extra hours a week, the time you spend working may be significantly less productive.  

Everyone knows that exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, but when we think about the value of exercise we often focus on the physical benefits. Regular physical activity improves heart and lung health, can lower cholesterol, and helps with weight management. But recent studies indicate that exercise also has a more immediate benefit: it’s impact on our productivity. In fact, scientific research suggests that brainpower is directly linked to our physical routines, and incorporating exercise into your daily routine can lead to a range of cognitive benefits.

More energy throughout the day
We’ve all been there. It’s 2pm and the only thing on your mind is crawling under your desk and dozing off to sleep. While it may sound counterintuitive, studies suggest that the best way to beat fatigue is to skip the nap and get moving. Exercise increases circulation, releases feel-good chemicals, and improves endurance, giving you the energy you need to tackle big projects and approach difficult tasks with a clear mind. It doesn’t take much—as little as 15 minutes of activity can give you the jolt you need to finish your day strong.

Read Jessica Sandhu's tips on how to keep your energy up throughout the day.

Improved concentration
Exercise helps sharpen focus and improve concentration by increasing blood flow to the brain and releasing dopamine (a chemical that plays a key role in learning and attention). Physical activity has been found to immediately raise focus levels, and the effects can last for up to three hours. Try working out before studying for an exam or giving an important presentation to help ensure you’re at your best when it’s time to perform.

Sharper memory
Outside of the temporary concentration boost that physical activity provides, it also helps sharpen memory over the long term. Researchers believe exercise increases the production of BDNF, a chemical that is critical for the development of nerve connections and brain tissue in the area of the brain responsible for reasoning and recall. Studies show that students who engage in exercise before learning retain more information, and older adults who participate in daily activity are less likely to have issues with memory loss.

Enhanced mood
Exercise increases the production of certain chemicals in the brain such as endorphins and serotonin, which enhance mood and help decrease anxiety and depression. And believe it or not, being in a better mood can have a profound impact on productivity, especially if your job requires interpersonal connections or collaboration. Enhanced mood can also keep you from feeling overwhelmed by tasks, in turn increasing your productivity.

Better impulse control
Speaking of endorphins—did you know that the feel-good chemicals can also help you prioritize? It’s true. Exercise-triggered endorphins enhance the prioritizing functions in the brain. After a workout, it’s easier to ignore distractions and pinpoint the tasks that require the most attention. If you’re having trouble sorting through your to-do list, you might benefit from a midday run or a quick yoga session.

The evidence is pretty compelling. Engaging in moderate exercise can help us better process information, work more efficiently, and even improve our relationships with coworkers. If physical activity is so great for productivity then we should probably be doing more of it. Easier said than done. Fitting exercise in can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. Here a few tips for making sure you get all the productivity benefits of exercise during the times you most need them.

  • Wake up a little bit earlier. This can take some getting used to but waking up just 30 minutes earlier can help you clear your head and start the day with an energy boost before you even have your first sip of coffee.
  • Pick a workout that you can do anywhere. If you travel a lot, choose an exercise routine that you can take on the go. Running can be done virtually anywhere, and nearly every city offers yoga classes (even better, most studios offer discounts for first timers!). There are also some great online resources available, such as Fitness Blender.
  • Work out efficiently. Instead of going for a long, leisurely bike ride try a 20-minute high intensity interval session on a spin bike. This will get the endorphins flowing quickly and allow you maximize the productivity benefits of exercise in a short amount of time.
  • Break up your activity into chunks. The Department of Health and Human Services suggests that adults aim for about 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per day. When your schedule is jam packed finding 30 minutes of solid, uninterrupted time can feel impossible. Instead, break that time into chunks. Get off the metro a few stops early and walk ten minutes to work, and at lunch take a call while walking around the block. Find a few minutes before bed to wind down with some stretching or light yoga.
  • Schedule your workouts and/or recruit an “accountability partner.” Sometimes when we claim to be too busy for exercise what we really mean is we don’t feel like we should be prioritizing physical activity. But considering all the productivity benefits of exercise, stop viewing your workouts as a luxury. This can be a hard habit to break so start by scheduling your workouts and committing to them as you would any other appointment. Recruiting an exercise buddy can also help you stay committed to your routine and reduce the likelihood that you bail on that run, yoga class, or gym session.

When things get hectic, we tend to view exercise as an indulgence that distracts us from our work. But skipping out on physical activity can leave us feeling sluggish, forgetful, and irritable, which in turn stifles productivity and make us less effective. Instead, recognize exercise as another tool for productivity and view it as a priority—especially when we’re busy!

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Grace Montgomery

Written by Grace Montgomery

Grace recently graduated from Georgetown University, where she studied public health with a focus on nutrition and health communications. In her free time you'll find her out on a long run, in the kitchen making a mess, or taking too many photos of her dog.