University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Steps for Success: Exercise Before the End of the Workday

Women lifting a kettlebell with image of a stopwatch faded in the background
May 16, 2023  |  By Mitchell Simpson, Christopher Rosen

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University of Arkansas professor of management Christopher Rosen examined the impact of exercise on work performance and found that exercise improved work focus for most workers. In light of empirical evidence such as Dr. Rosen’s, more than half of employers offer a wellness program that incorporates physical activity.  

But even with mounting evidence of the benefits of working out on productivity, many researchers still view exercise as a kind of post-work leisure. Rosen and his coauthors, Drs. Charles Calderwood, Allison Gabriel, Lieke ten Brummelhuis, and Emily Rost, note that this is an unfortunate gap in our understanding of exercise and work because organizations have far more control over workday physical activity than they do over post-work leisure activities.  

In “Understanding the Relationship Between Prior to End-of-Workday Physical Activity and Work-Life Balance,” the team of researchers found physical activity during the workday to be a boundary-spanning resource that has the potential to provide benefits to employees in more than one domain of their lives—in this case both at work and at home.  

Their work builds upon and extends previous research that found a sense of work-life balance arises from employees’ abilities to simultaneously pursue home and work life goals. The researchers note that prior focus on exercise as a post-work activity has emphasized benefits on subsequent work and not focused on its effects on employees’ nonwork lives. What they found specifically was that prior to end-of-workday physical activity facilitated workers’ physical energy at the end of the workday, so they were better equipped to meet work (i.e., recovery) and nonwork (i.e., family engagement) goals once off the clock. 

Measuring Activity 

The researchers followed staff at a large state research university for five days. The employees worked desk jobs for at least 32 hours a week, and they all worked Monday – Friday during traditional working hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Most of the researchers’ participants were married women with children, and a large majority were white (97.2%).  

The researchers acknowledge the demographics of their research participants are a bit of a limitation for their study, so they encourage future research to explore how prior to end-of-workday physical activity impacts other populations. However, they did test their results both with and without control variables, and in both cases, their evidence was robust and reliable. So, the researchers provide a solid foundation for that future work. 

During this 5-day period, the participants in the study continuously wore a wrist-worn activity tracker to measure their movement, and they answered three surveys a day to measure their end-of-workday vigor, relaxation, family absorption, and work-life balance satisfaction. Importantly, the activity tracker only measured the number of steps participants took during the day, not the physical activity’s intensity. While that does limit some of the specific advice the researchers can offer employers, it does mean their findings are generalizable to a wide range of physical activities and abilities, especially when paired with findings from Rosen’s earlier work. 

Upon analysis, Rosen, Calderwood, Gabriel, ten Brummelhuis, and Rost found that physical activity is a resource “that can transmit benefits across domains.” Specifically, employees feel like they have energy at the end of the workday after they’ve been physically active. They can in turn use this energy “to facilitate post-work relaxation, mastery, and family absorption” and by achieving both these work- and non-work-related goals, employees are more satisfied with their work-life balance. 

Basically, workers who were physically active during the workday felt like they had “greater bandwidth” to pursue resources after work, according to the team of researchers. Rosen, Calderwood, Gabriel, ten Brummelhuis, and Rost also suspect that post-work mastery activities (i.e., continuing education) could likely cause a gain spiral when paired with prior to end-of-workday physical activity.  

Taking Steps 

While much of the researchers’ advice centers on the programs organizations can put in place to facilitate employee physical activity during the workday, individual workers can benefit directly from their findings. What is particularly heartening is the source of their data: within-person, subjective feelings interpreted from the daily surveys. So, it’s not that employees who are more active during the day are on the net more productive, but rather, they themselves feel more invigorated and prepared to tackle their goals. 

Remote workers could particularly benefit from this since they do not gain the social benefits of interacting with coworkers in person. Many of us do prefer the commute-less arrangement of remote work, but we should acknowledge that it isn’t without its drawbacks. Loneliness can make it difficult for us to be productive and achieve our goals, so it seems a little physical activity throughout the day could help remote workers foster energy, even if working from home is nonnegotiable. 

While Profs. Rosen, Calderwood, Gabriel, ten Brummelhuis, and Rost say that it’s unclear how their findings would apply to people who work physically demanding jobs, given that the sample for their study was comprised primarily of employees holding desk jobs. And their data doesn’t show how or why employees were active, but they offer promising insights about the ways physical activity can help us achieve work-life balance.  

Matt WallerChristopher C. Rosen is a professor and the John H. Tyson Chair in Business Management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. He received a B.A. in Psychology and Economics from Washington and Lee University, his M.A. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management from Appalachian State University, and his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Akron. His research covers a broad range of topics, including employee well-being, self-regulation, and organizational politics. He currently serves as an associate editor for Journal of Management and is chair of the Human Resources Division of the Academy of Management

Mitchell SimpsonMitchell Simpson is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the University of Arkansas. His research focuses on the Global Middle Ages and cross-cultural communication in the European Medieval and Early Modern Periods. When his nose isn't buried in a book (usually a Japanese textbook right now), he can be found hiking the Ozarks or at the gym improving his grappling. He lives with his wife, Rachel, and their small menagerie, two cats, Hildi and Winnie, and a goofy dog, Birch, in Fayetteville.