Employers have known about the benefits of workplace fitness and wellness programs for a while now. For example, Johnson & Johnson introduced its Live for Life program in 1979 with the goal of improving the overall health of its employees. Here in Northwest Arkansas, Tyson Foods has blended employee health and fitness with charity since 2017 with its Miles that Matter, a now international program that donates a pound of protein for every mile its employees walk.
The question is not whether employees benefit from exercise but rather when that exercise benefits them, as Christopher Rosen and his coauthors observe.
He, along with Lieke ten Brummelhuis , Charles Calderwood and Allison S. Gabriel argue that exercise before the end of the workday generally correlates with work focus and feelings of self-efficacy in their interdisciplinary study, “Is Physical Activity Before the End of the Workday a Drain or a Gain? Daily Implications on Work Focus in Regular Exercisers.”
The researchers note that their study only involved regular exercisers, most of whom work office jobs, so they are careful not to overgeneralize their findings. Regardless, their research suggests that workers who perform challenging exercises during (or before) work hours and/or get additional light physical activity during the day tend to be more effective at work.
A Workout as a Resource
Current research already suggests that employee work performance benefits from exercise after the workday. For this reason, there is considerable financial incentive for employers to provide an office gym for their employees. Some small businesses even rent space within gyms so they can work while working out!
Despite the feasibility of incorporating exercise into the workday, Rosen’s coauthor Calderwood has argued that there is a paucity of research trying to understand how working out effects work performance when it occurs before or during work hours .
At a time when remote work has paradoxically made workers more sedentary and brought exercise to the desk itself, Rosen, ten Brummelhuis, Calderwood, and Gabriel establish the role exercise can play in a productive workday.
Their research applies ten Brummelhuis’s Work-Home Resources model, which hinges on the simple but insightful observation that activities in one sphere of our lives can be either relative sources of or drains on our energy for tasks in other parts of our lives. For example, practicing a cherished hobby in the evening might give a worker the quiet moments of relaxation and recovery they need to begin the next day afresh.
Likewise, haggling with a disagreeable landlord or contractor to schedule and pay for necessary maintenance might contribute to their stress and thus diminish their productivity the next day.
This model offers a less abstract assessment of work-life balance, revealing the value of leisure activities and the importance of giving employees the time they need to accomplish draining tasks. The model, of course, works the other way, too; just consider the mood around the dinner table after a good and bad day at work.
Levels of Exercise and Their Impact
Under the Work-Home Resources model, Rosen and his coauthors expected that exercise might be a relative drain or source of energy. On the one hand, regular exercise demands a degree of self-control that might make similar tasks of self-regulation difficult to complete. On the other hand, a successful workout can promote a strong sense of accomplishment, which helps inspire vim and vigor throughout the day.
For this reason, the researchers identified two groups of exercisers: those who are intrinsically and those who are extrinsically motivated – like an amateur athlete compared to someone watching their weight.
Rosen, ten Brummelhuis, Calderwood, and Gabriel reasoned that while exercise might be beneficial to both groups, intrinsically motivated exercisers were more likely to need vigorous exercise to be able to reap such benefits, whereas extrinsically motivated exercisers only needed moderate exercise to do so (possibly even undermining the benefits of exercise with vigorous activity).
To test this, the team of researchers gave a group of fit, regular exercisers Fitbits to measure their activity during the day. Each employee would report their perceived work performance and wellbeing throughout the day, and a coworker would likewise submit an assessment of the employee’s work focus. These employees, who typically worked over 40 hours per week, exercised (at work) a little over half of the research days and completed 41 minutes of exercise on average.
Regardless of whether they exercised (i.e., specific, directed activity) or not, employees got about an hour more than the daily recommended amount of physical activity each day as measured by their Fitbits.
Among this group of exercisers, no level of exercise was associated with the depletion of personal resources, meaning that exercise did not negatively affect their work performance. The research revealed that light and vigorous, but not moderate, exercise was associated with improved work focus. The researchers found that the self-efficacy of intrinsically motivated exercisers was improved by vigorous exercise, and that of extrinsically motivated exercisers benefited from moderate exercise.
It seems that intrinsically motived exercisers were also marginally enriched by light physical activity, although there was not statistically relevant difference between the two groups.
Interestingly, Rosen and his coauthors noticed that moderate and vigorous activity measured by the Fitbits matched participants’ reported exercise, but they did not match light physical activity. It suggests that light exercise was often viewed as a happy accident, the benefits of which the researchers identify as a possible topic for future research.
Understandably, there is scholarly and business interest in evaluating the benefits of breaks during work and what those breaks should look like. Rosen and his coauthors have established that physical recovery is a viable break option for employees, as it neither depletes personal resources nor impinges upon work focus. Instead, it can give the employee a needed jolt of confidence.
Employers, however, need to understand that they will have at least two kinds of employees who will regularly engage in physical activity, and similarly, it is important that the worker know which camp they fall into because one type of program won’t benefit all employees equally.
Everyone seems to benefit from light levels of exercise throughout the workday and by accomplishing a more intense exercise, whether vigorous or moderate, that they find personally challenging; the danger lies in undershooting the target if one is intrinsically motivated or overshooting if one is extrinsically motivated.
Even before the pandemic forced us indoors, we were becoming more sedentary than before, despite the known adverse health outcomes from sitting too much. It doesn’t take much exercise to make us happier, and now Rosen and his coauthors’ findings suggest that exercise can also help us be more effective workers.
Over the last couple of years, the workforce has grappled with many difficult questions regarding our work and our health. As we negotiate what workplaces and work hours ought to look like, Rosen’s work can certainly guide us as we establish the value of our physical health in our working lives.