Being productive has become the holy grail of modern society.

According to The Economist, people are working longer than ever before. Whether you’re on your phone or surfing the net you’ve probably come across a bunch of different apps, podcasts, seminars and lifestyle hacks all promising to make you better at getting things done.  

Along with warding off disease and helping us become fitter, regular exercise can make us better workers by improving our cognitive skills and helping us focus.  

If you want to be the star employee or a true boss, grab your gym gear and check out the five ways working out can up your office game.  

Exercise Makes You More Creative

Young man stretching outside

Even if you’re not a graphic designer or involved in a form of employment that requires artistic talent, we all benefit from creative thinking. Being able to think outside the box can help you find unique ways to solve problems.

According to experts, creative workers make desirable workers. Along with being pleasurable to have on a team (it’s said that they make playful coworkers), they take risks, can spend longer on a project without becoming bored, are dedicated, and function well in chaotic situations.   

If you’re thinking that’s not you, trust us when we say it could be. That is, if you start exercising more.  

When we exercise, a protein is released called BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor). It promotes production of new brain cells and strengthens the area where our imagination is derived from- the hippocampus. The hippocampus is generally associated with memory and what we remember plays a leading part in how well we visualize future outcomes.

In Nature Reviews Neuroscience [1], scientists call this occurrence the prospective brain. It refers to the use of memory to predict results in similar current or upcoming events.  

In many ways people already do this naturally. When we experience something, we store the information in our brain for future reference. For example, if you know a specific barista at your favorite coffee shop is routinely slow, you may have figured out that calling your order in ahead of time is the best solution to avoid waiting around. In short, you’ve learned to anticipate a problem and have found a way around it.  

According to research, exercise may be able to help us do this as well. It stimulates the prospective brain, therefore making us more efficient at task solving. If you work out while pondering a work-related dilemma (i.e., creating a genius idea to impress the boss), you may start recalling other situations and the strategies that were used to overcome them.   

There is also research that indicates exercise can make us more creative by taxing the executive function region in our brain (the area in charge of impulse, working memory and mental flexibility) [2]. Physical activity may fatigue this area enough that other parts, such as our associated memory, will take over.   

You don’t have to rely solely on the gym for this to happen either. In fact, taking your routine outside may increase the odds that you’ll be hit by sudden inspiration. When we’re in nature we’re more likely to feel energize and take in the novelty of the experience, which can lead to new ideas. One study even showed that a simple walk could help us trigger more creativity.  

Young man exercising with kettlebell

Exercise Helps You Focus Better

Are you one of those people who procrastinate when there’s something do? You’re not alone.

Many of us find deadlines stressful and an easy way to mentally check out of work. Fortunately, the cure for that dilemma may be as easy as a quick sweat session.  

Research has shown that just a 30-minute cardio workout is enough to release feel good hormones (bye-bye stress) and elevate neurotransmitters that relieve tension and help concentration.  

Once again, the hippocampus plays a leading role in this. As we exercise our blood flow increases, and oxygen and hormones create an environment that promotes the area to grow. Scientists have found that those with larger hippocampus enjoy the benefit of lower dementia rates, better verbal skills, stronger memory, and stronger cognition.  

Furthermore, exercise has been shown to strengthen the brain’s executive function when done regularly [3]. In one 9-month study, school children who took part in an afternoon fitness program were found to have better concentration than when they began. Researchers also noted that they were less susceptible to distractions.  

Exercise Makes You Better 

At Problem Solving

Young man stretching his arm

We’ve all seen those mind training games pop up our phones, and when paired with physical activity, they may really make you smarter.

In a study conducted by The university of California, Berkley and The University of Texas, a group of 36 non-active men between the ages of 56 and 75 were split into two groups. One was given cognitive training, the other physical training that was for 3 hours a week.  

At the end of the 12-week experiment, each group were give MRI scans and were tested for brain function. While both groups showed mental improvement, researchers noted that the exercisers had more blood flow in the bilateral hippocampi region which often degrades with age.  

Researchers have hypothesized that together, both types of training can promote neural plasticity. This means that exercise can help the part of your brain in charge of goal focused tasks remain strong and less susceptible to deterioration.  

Young man jumping outside

Exercise Reduces Stress

Workplace stress is one of the leading causes of anxiety, discomfort and dissatisfaction. According to a StressPulse Survey, 46 percent of us report feeling that our job responsibilities stress us out. Not exactly the best recipe for a happy, productive worker.

Physical activity can be a healthy way to channel frustration and work-related anxiety. Yoga, for example, not only promotes mindfulness but makes us better breathers.  

Practicing proper inhaling and exhaling (from your gut, not your chest) has been shown to lower the heart rate. It can also aid in feeling more present at work and who doesn’t benefit from that?  

And one of the best parts of yoga is that you don’t even have to book a class to adopt some of its practices. According to an article in Fast Company, just performing some deep breathing at your desk is all it takes to leave you feeling relaxed and focused enough to deal with an imploding inbox.  

Another way exercise can help beat work stress is by boosting self-esteem. In a study published by The Journal of Sports Psychology, working out regularly for 6 months can increase our concept of self and personal abilities.  

It could be that being able to perform a physically hard task, such as a jump box or rope climb, may help us feel surer in our overall capabilities. This can result in us feeling more confident when encountering other challenges, including those at work.   

Exercise Helps You Sleep Better

Young man smiling at camera

If you pulled a few all-nighters in college, then you know that trying to get things done on no sleep doesn’t work for long. Fatigue can create mental fog, forgetfulness and inhibit coordination- basically, everything that’s guaranteed to make you suck at your job.

Sleep is the primary time for the body to reset and repair itself. That doesn’t happen when you’re tossing and turning through the night. Besides being physically exhausting, regular exercise leads to better sleep by improving our circadian rhythms.  

Also known as our sleep/wake cycle, our circadian rhythms are responsible for why we’re alert at certain hours and sleepy at others. If you have insomnia or are just a night owl, exercise can retrain your circadian rhythms by regulating hormone production, lowering your heart rate and decreasing blood pressure [4].  

But don’t do a bunch of jumping jacks before hopping into bed. While any exercise (especially if it’s the only time you have) is good, you may find yourself too amped up to sleep if you do it before lights out.  

Sleep experts recommend keeping the intense workouts to earlier in the day. It’s been shown that people who are able to break a sweat by 7am sleep deeper and experience more of the reparative benefits.  

If you must burn some energy before hitting the sack, yoga and other gentler activities may be a better and more relaxing alternative. However, if you can’t shut your eyes without a quick run, you’ll be glad to know that many people are able to sleep after working out. According to The National Sleep Foundation's 2013 "Sleep in America" poll, of 1,000 people polled, 83 percent reported having a good night’s rest regardless of the time they exercised. The takeaway? Exercise equals sleep and sleep equals a well-rested, productive worker.  

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[1] Schacter, D. L., Addis, D. R., & Buckner, R. L. (2007, September 01). Remembering the past to imagine the future: The prospective brain. 
[2] Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 2014, Vol. 40, No. 4, 1142–1152
[3] Pediatrics 2014 Oct;134(4):e1063-71. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-3219.
[4] Hower, I. M., Harper, S. A., & Buford, T. W. (2018). Circadian Rhythms, Exercise, and Cardiovascular Health. Journal of circadian rhythms, 16, 7. doi:10.5334/jcr.164