Exercise during the workday

Sometimes, the difference between a productive day and time wasted can come down to an hour: an hour’s extra sleep, an hour’s exercise, or an hour’s deep work can have a profoundly positive impact on how you work and live. This January, we’re looking at ways to have a more productive year in a new series called Power of an Hour.

Exercise. We all know we need it. Many of us dread it. And nearly all of us struggle to find time to do it.

Unlike sleeping, exercise isn’t necessarily something that’s going to happen to us every day. We have to actively find time to fit it in. And many people are finding ways to do it during the activity that takes up most of their day: work.

‘Golden opportunity’

Exercise during the day and you’ll look better, feel better and even work better. These benefits have long been known.

Researchers conducting a 2008 study in the UK found that that more than 200 employees who had access to and used a company gym were more productive during the day, and went home feeling more satisfied on the days they exercised during regular work hours.

In 2013, another study showed that regardless of age, people experience “immediate benefits” for cognition following “a single bout of moderate exercise”, such as 15 minutes of moderately intense cycling on a stationary bike. These findings suggest that working out during the day could be even better than bookending gym time before or after the office.

That’s on top of all the regular benefits to physical activity, including weight loss, better sleep, better sex, better mood and keeping diseases at bay.

Peter Antonio, a personal trainer, fitness instructor and registered nutritionist at the University of Birmingham Sport, the physical fitness arm of the UK university, calls ducking out of work during your lunch break to exercise a “golden opportunity”.

Not only does it help his clients’ over-arching fitness goals, but it “gives you a mid-day sense of accomplishment which can last for the remainder of the day”, he says. Antonio adds that clients who exercise during the day find they get more work done and take fewer sick days. Plus, it’s good for mental health, providing a stress-free getaway from the daily typhoon of meetings and emails.

Some people make a similar argument to preserve break time and physical education at primary and secondary schools. Research there, too, suggests that taking a break from repetitive tasks and getting away from the classroom grind helps pupils pay attention and perform better.

But the personal perks are just the beginning. Workday exercise could also provide benefits on a more macro level.

There’s been discussion among health organisations and business leaders around whether we should make exercise compulsory at work to fight bigger societal health problems that filter into the workplace. More than 20 million people in the UK, for instance, are physically inactive, which costs the National Health Service £1.2bn ($1.5bn) a year, according to the British Heart Foundation.

Tech CEO Ryan Holmes, who runs social media platform HootSuite, wrote an opinion piece a few years back that went viral, titled “Why It’s Time We Paid Employees to Exercise at Work”.

In it, he called for on-the-clock exercise that’s implemented from the top. After all, he says, it’s hard to maintain a robust team if people are dying of preventable heart diseases, cancers and respiratory afflictions because they’re out of shape.