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Exercise may make you a better worker

Drowning at work? Maybe you should take a break and get moving. New research finds that busy professionals who exercise during the day feel more productive.
F. Birchman /

Drowning at work? Maybe you should take a break and get moving. New research finds that busy professionals who exercise during the day feel more productive. They're also less likely to spout off at colleagues and slam down the phone after they've worked up a sweat.

British researchers studied about 200 workers at three sites: a university, a computer company and a life insurance firm. Workers were asked to complete questionnaires about their job performance and mood on days when they exercised at work and days when they didn't.

Participants were free to engage in the physical activity of their choice. Most of them spent 30 to 60 minutes at lunch doing everything from yoga and aerobics to strength training and playing pick-up games of basketball.

Six out of 10 workers said their time management skills, mental performance and ability to meet deadlines improved on days when they exercised. The amount of the overall performance boost was about 15 percent, according to the findings, which were presented this month at a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.

"The people who exercised went home feeling more satisfied with their day," says study author Jim McKenna, a professor of physical activity and health at Leeds Metropolitan University in the U.K.

"We were surprised," he says. "We weren't expecting this amount of effect." All of the study participants were regular exercisers and they already felt they did a good job at work. But many still saw an improvement with exercise.

Any exercise helped
The type of exercise didn't seem to matter. "We could find no difference according to length of exercise or duration or intensity," McKenna says. "You still got the effect no matter what you did."

Participants also rated their moods in the morning and afternoon. And as expected, exercise improved mood, a finding supported by other research, says McKenna. "There's a very strong mood effect with exercise," he says, adding that physical activity can be both energizing and tranquilizing.

During focus group discussions, many of the participants said exercise seemed to help them deal better with the demands and pressures on the job. "After exercise, people adopted a more tolerant attitude to themselves and to their work," says McKenna. "They were more tolerant of their own shortcomings and to those of others." They didn't lose their temper as much, for example, or yell at coworkers or slam the phone, he notes.

Workers in the study also indicated they were less likely to suffer bouts of afternoon fatigue known as the "post-lunch dip" on days when they exercised. "It's the paradox of exercise," says McKenna, "to get energy you have to expend some."

Dr. I-Min Lee, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston who studies the effects of exercise, says other research supports the notion that exercise might help people do their jobs better, perhaps by improving mood or easing stress.

But in the current study, participants exercised on the days of their choosing. So it's possible that they were already in a better mood on those days, she notes. "Thus, one might wonder whether on the days I chose to exercise, I might be in a better state (e.g. fewer errands to run, less stressed, my car didn't act up, my children were not called to the principal's office, etc.)," she says.

"Did these findings reflect a positive effect of exercise, or did the fact that those exercising on a particular day do so because their life was progressing well?" she asks.

Public-health researchers agree, though, that fitting exercise in during one's workday is a worthy goal for maintaining good health. Short bouts of activity, like taking a brisk walk at lunch or even opting for the stairs instead of the elevator a few times a day, can add up.

Encouraging employee fitness
McKenna says his findings should give companies an additional incentive to offer workplace exercise programs, which may also help cut down on sick days and reduce health-care costs.

Chrys Shimizu, a senior staffing manager at Office Workouts, an Agoura, Calif., company that brings fitness to the workplace in ways as simple as dispatching a yoga teacher to an empty conference room to fully staffing corporate gyms, says employees appreciate the convenience of exercising at work and the fact that their companies offer the benefit.

"It certainly improves employee morale and decreases the turnaround," she says.

But smaller companies often can't afford or don't have room to have on-site exercise classes or facilities, Shimizu points out.

Of the 41.3 million Americans who belonged to a health club last year, 1.65 million, or 4 percent, belonged to a corporate fitness center, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, a Boston-based group that represents fitness clubs across the country.

But IHRSA is hoping more companies offer exercise on the job or provide a fitness benefit that helps workers cover the cost of an off-site gym membership.

A bill in Congress, called the Workforce Health Improvement Program Act, would prevent employees from being taxed on benefits that compensate them for health-club dues and would also provide tax incentives for employers offering this benefit.

Smart Fitness appears the second Tuesday of each month.