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 for employees to invest in their physical and mental wellbeing than potentially saving their employers money. Here are Ciphr’s four favourite ways that physical activity can improve your career.
How does exercise improve work productivity? Four benefits to exercise
From better sleep to more energy, keeping active has a whole host of positive side effects – but many people may not realise those benefits can spill over into their professional lives. So how does exercise improve work productivity and, in turn, your career? Read on to find out.
1. It can boost your performance
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. That lifestyle has hurt both our physical and mental health.”
Research studies have backed up Medina’s claims, demonstrating that exercise improves work productivity.
‘Resource caravans’ and job self-efficacy
In 2023, Harvard Business Review conducted a 10-day study in which 200 employees from China and the UK tracked their physical activity and subsequent work outcomes. They found that daily physical activity gave participates ‘resource caravans’ the next day, which helped their productivity at work. One such resource was sleep quality, which is improved by physical activity. Another was vigour and a third resource was task focus, which supports better concentration, attention, and information processing.
The study also found that exercise improved job self-efficacy, which is a person’s belief of how capable at doing their job they are. Individuals with higher job self-efficacy tend to believe in themselves more and feel more motivated – which, in turn, positively impacts their job performance.
It’s important to note that there’s a slight delay on the benefits from exercise, meaning it may take some time to experience improved productivity at work. The study found results occurred the next day – so your Monday lunchtime run may not take effect until Tuesday.
Corporate wellness programmes
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 health changes,” wrote the researchers. “Sick and healthy individuals who improved their health [through better diet and more exercise] increased productivity by about 10%.”
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 software – this valuable information will help you to demonstrate your programme’s return on investment (ROI) and help you make the business case for future investments.
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 2020 study found that physical activity and imagination were linked. In this study, 79 participants recorded their daily bodily movement for five days. Their creativity was monitored as well, both by themselves and through tests. Researchers found that the more active the volunteers were, the more creative they were – findings that point towards “an association between creativity and physical activity in everyday life”.
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 12.5% of 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 14% of people in the 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.
In a 2022 report , the Mental Health Foundation set out the links between connecting with nature and our mental health. Research found that people with more of a connection to nature tended to be happier, and that the quality of our relationship with nature has a positive impact on our overall wellbeing.
Not only that, other research has shown that nature can improve our mental abilities, including reasoning and problem solving, and our physical wellness, such as reducing cortisol levels and muscle tension.
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 a walking meeting instead? With a little planning, it’s easy to add more activity to your working day – and reap the benefits.
Track your productivity with Ciphr
How does exercise improve work productivity? In so many ways, from boosting creativity to helping with networking. And now that you know the proven benefits, you can encourage your employees to get moving and become the best versions of themselves, both professionally and personally.
This article was first published in June 2017. It was updated in January 2024 for freshness, clarity and accuracy.