The Cognitive Benefits of Exercise at Work

Priya Ghose
May 28, 2019

It’s the New Year and resolutions abound, with vows to exercise more and find better focus at work topping the list. The good news for those resolution makers, or anyone who might be looking to find better concentration in a world of distraction, is that the two are not actually mutually exclusive.

While exercise has well-known physical benefits, for the past 40 years scientists have also uncovering a myriad of other benefits that come with being active. They have found that working out improves cognition, and enables us to learn faster and solve complex problems with ease. Delving into the cognitive benefits of exercise could help you to revamp your workday routine and incorporate exercise into your day at the office.

Exercise, work, and productivity

Bottom line, exercise affects our productivity. In one study conducted in the United Kingdom, office workers were given two mood diary questionnaires to fill out: one on a day they exercised, and the other on a non-exercise day. Subsequent analysis found that on exercise days, workers reported better problem solving ability, a clearer mind, improved concentration, and increased motivation to work.

But why is that so? What’s really happening when we exercise, and how does exercise enable us to work and think clearly? Well, just as core exercises work your abs, and push ups work your biceps and shoulders, aerobic exercise works your brain. As John J. Ratey explains in Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, the brain is "plastic," which means it's changeable. Like a muscle, it can grow and transform. Exercise actually causes us to grow new neurons, giving us the brainpower to perform complex tasks.

In addition, exercise produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that causes our neurons to grow branches, called dendrites, to better communicate to one another. Ultimately, improved communication between our brain cells makes it easier for us to store memories and learn quickly.

So, when practiced regularly, just as exercise makes us physically stronger and builds up our muscles, it also affects the physical structure of our brain cells and intensifies our cognitive ability.

The personal economics of exercise

Even though the benefits of exercise are well documented, if you struggle to stay active you are not alone. “Exercise more” is a top New Year’s Resolution, until February hits and our collective resolve wanes. With demanding jobs and an ever expanding work day, we may find ourselves staying late at work instead of going to that CrossFit class, or ignoring our alarm clock in the morning even though we planned to go on a morning run.

If you’ve ever told yourself you can skip the workout you planned just this once, you are falling into what economists call “time inconsistency.” This phenomenon, when you promise you can make up tomorrow what you skipped today, puts too much trust in your future self, because often, when tomorrow comes around, you put off exercise again.

As much of a trap as this pattern can seem, simply acknowledging it can help you manage it. Rather than expecting yourself to make the right choice tomorrow, you can create safeguards to assure that you actually follow-through on your plans today. Economist Dean Karlan and law professor Ian Ayres have studied how to achieve goals like quitting smoking or losing weight. A strategy they recommend is to leverage “loss aversion,” which is an economist’s way of saying we are more likely to accomplish goals and stick to new habits when we put money on the line because we hate the thought of losing it.

For example, if you want to lift weights twice a week could pay a friend $50 on any week you don’t accomplish their goal, or use an app like Stickk, designed by Karlan and Ayres, to automatically withdraw money from your account if you miss your goals.

Loss incentives other than money can also be effective, as long as the proposed cost of not exercising feels more frustrating than the time and effort of a workout. For example, if you wanted to go to a spin class on Wednesdays after work, you could invite a friend to join you, so that not showing up means losing out on a chance to spend time with your friend.

These safeguards act as the first line of defense against your brain’s clever excuses and can help you get over the inertia that holds you back from starting a new exercise habit. In the long term, loss aversion techniques may be replaced by intrinsic motivation, as you become attuned to the cognitive and psychological benefits of exercise. Once you get into a routine, you might even find yourself enjoying it.

Incorporating exercise and work

Once you’ve found a strategy to dealing with your own internal resistance, you’ll want to prepare for another aspect of your life that can feel at odds with being more active: sedentary office work and the culture of “always working” that comes with it. We may sometimes feel implicit pressure from our work environments to stay at our desks more and work out less, especially during busy periods.

A steady exercise habit will help you be more productive and focused, especially during high-pressure times, but maintaining it requires clear communication and boundaries. It may feel selfish at first to carve out and guard time to work out, but remember it increases your brain power and enables you to better able to tackle the day’s problems when you return to your desk.

Block out time to exercise like you would any other appointment on your calendar. Mark yourself as busy during the times you plan to work out, whether before or after work or at lunch, and tell your colleagues ahead of time that you need to leave work at a certain time. Treat your scheduled time as non-negotiable, like you would any other meeting. Even better, perhaps find a weekly class that you and your colleagues could take together, which will serve several purposes: team bonding and accountability, in addition to exercise.

You also may not be as alone in your quest for a more active lifestyle as you might feel. Many companies recognize that supporting their employees in achieving the health and wellness goals produces mutual benefit: a workforce that is productive and engaged and a balanced company culture. While you may not be lucky enough to have a gym on site at work (and if you are, block off time to use it), find out if your company offers exercise-related perks like free or reduced membership to an offsite gym or rebates on health insurance for working out regularly.

Some companies offer their gym benefits with a caveat: employees only keep the benefit if they use the gym a certain number of times a month. It’s a clever implementation of loss aversion; Employees hate to lose a perk, so they go enough to keep the benefit, even when they’re busy or tempted not to go.

Investing in fitness from the company level need not be expensive: companies can also encourage movement through smaller initiatives like lunch walking groups, FitBit challenges, in-house yoga classes, or a Slack channel where co-workers plan to go to local fitness classes together. To boost your motivation, talk with your HR or Employee Experience team about organizing a low-cost work and exercise initiative. Perhaps you’ll find more allies on your fitness journey.

Photography by Julia Robbs

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