Exercising regularly isn’t just good for your health – it could have great benefits for your career, too
The cost of employee ill health to UK organisations is both well-documented and growing. But there are other, more personal reasons to invest in your physical and mental wellbeing than potentially saving your employer money: here are CIPHR’s four favourite ways that physical activity improves your career.
1. It can make you more productive
Physical activity is “cognitive candy” says developmental molecular biologist Dr John Medina. “Our evolutionary ancestors were used to walking up to 12 miles per day. This means that our brains were supported for most of our evolutionary history by Olympic-caliber [sic] bodies… We haven’t had millions of years to adapt to our sedentary lifestyle, [which] has hurt both our physical and mental health.”
Research studies have backed up Medina’s claims, demonstrating that looking after your health and wellbeing leads to noticeable improvements in productivity and performance at work.
In a small-scale trial by the Body-Brain Performance Institute, carried out in Australia in 2011, researchers found that employees who walked 10,000 steps a day, and exercised in the gym three times a week, tended to be more productive than those who only walked 10,000 steps a day. The study measured participants’ ability to plan, remember, simulate scenarios and make decisions, along with their alertness, energy, anger and stress levels. The researchers estimated that the employees who did the extra gym exercise would each add $2,500-worth of productivity to their company. However, before you strap on a Fitbit and start marching up and down your office stairs, it’s worth noting that 10,000 steps per day is an arbitrary figure that originated from a 1960s marketing campaign – it’s likely that any increase in your activity levels, even if you don’t reach the 10,000-step daily milestone, will have a beneficial effect.
A 2017 study led by the University of California showed the value of corporate wellness programmes in not only reducing absenteeism but also improving productivity. The research team followed the progress of 111 workers in five laundry plants who were given access to a free, voluntary wellness programme that gave workers personalised health information. They compared the workers’ health statistics with daily production data to generate causal estimates of the programme’s impact on productivity.
“We find productivity improvements based both on program [sic] participation and post-program [sic] health changes,” wrote the researchers. “Sick and healthy individuals who improved their health increased productivity by about 10%, with surveys indicating sources in improved diet and exercise.”
If you introduce a corporate wellbeing or wellness programme, don’t forget to track its impact on absence rates and performance ratings using the data that’s available in your HR management system – this valuable information will help you to demonstrate your programmes’ return on investment (ROI), and help you make the business case for future interventions.
2. It can boost your creativity and focus
Lacking inspiration? Stuck in a creative rut? Got lots of problems and no idea how to solve them? Stick your trainers on and get moving because a 2013 study by cognitive psychologist Professor Lorenza Colzato found that workers who exercised four times a week were more able to think creatively than more sedentary employees.
“We think that physical movement is good for the ability to think flexibly, but only if the body is used to being active,” says Colzato. “Otherwise, a large part of the energy intended for creative thinking goes to the movement itself. Exercising on a regular basis may thus act as a cognitive enhancer, promoting creativity in inexpensive and healthy ways.” However, the researchers noted that the creative performance of those participants who exercised fell when they were completely at rest.
Writing for Quartz, Wendy Suzuki, professor of neural science and psychology at New York University, explains that exercise can boost our performance at work in three additional ways. Firstly, it helps to combat stress because it causes increases in neurotransmitters such as serotonin that are depleted by anxiety and depression. Secondly, exercise helps improve your ability to shift and focus your attention – so if you have an in-depth project that requires your attention, consider working out before tackling it. Finally, physical activity stimulates the growth of new cells in the hippocampus that can improve your memory. “All this should serve as a powerful motivator for regular physical activity,” says Suzuki.
3. It can open up new ways to expand your professional network
Business networking traditionally used to take place over a game of golf or a round of beers. But the UK population is becoming more health conscious; it’s estimated that one in five UK adults don’t drink alcohol, with teetotalism becoming increasingly popular among young people in particular. Gyms are soaring in popularity, too; it is estimated that one-in-seven UK people are gym members, and some are even replacing going to nightclubs with late-night exercise classes.
So if you want to find a new group of people to connect with, why not try ‘sweatworking’ at your local gym or sports centre – either by attending specialist events or simply taking out your headphones and talking to people?
“Sweating together breeds a unique sense of camaraderie,” writes David Tao for Forbes. “Small talk proliferates between sets and reps, so getting to know your partners in fitness — including their professional lives — is all part of the game. With the right pieces lined up, making the leap from fitness friends to business partners isn’t at all farfetched.”
4. Exercising outdoors can lead to extra benefits
Choose to take your exercise outside and you’ll multiply the inherent physical and mental benefits of getting your body moving.
Results of the Urban Mind project, led by Dr Andrea Mechellio of King’s College London, reinforced the positive link between being outdoors and mental health. But the study also found that the positive effects of exposure to nature, such as going for a run or sitting in a park, can last for up to seven hours after the experience – so if you’re thinking twice about walking to work or taking a stroll at lunchtime, think about how good it could make you feel for the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, a 2017 review of more than 200 academic studies suggests that people who live closer to trees and other green spaces are less likely to be obese, inactive or reliant on anti-depressant medication. “The evidence is strong and growing that people and communities can only thrive when they have access to nature,” Robbie Blake, a nature campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, told the Guardian.
So the next time you’re organising an away day or team bonding event, why not consider incorporating outdoor activities such as sports, cycling or hiking, and enjoy the extra benefits of being out in nature? Or, instead of organising yet another sit-down catch-up with your direct reports, opt for an walking meeting instead? With a little planning, it’s easy to add more activity to your working day – and reap the benefits.
This article was first published in June 2017. It was updated in September 2018 for freshness, clarity and accuracy.