Workers more productive after exercise

Workers’ quality of work, mental performance and time management were better on days when they exercised, according to research presented at the 52nd American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tenn.

After exercising, study participants returned to work more tolerant of themselves and more forgiving of their colleagues. Their work performance was consistently and significantly higher, as measured by:

  • Ability to manage time demands
  • Ability to manage output demands
  • Mental and interpersonal performance

The gains were widespread, with a minimum of 65 percent of workers improving in all three areas on exercise days.

The study involved 210 workers in England whose employers offered on-site exercise programs—chiefly aerobics classes, but also yoga and stretching. Participants completed questionnaires reflecting the ease of completing tasks using a seven-point scale. This was done on a day when they exercised during the workday and again on days when they did not. They estimated how typical was each day’s workload and provided details about each exercise session. Most of the workers had sedentary jobs; all were involved in voluntary workplace exercise programs and reported feeling confident in their work performance before beginning the study.

“The results are striking,” said lead researcher Jim McKenna, Ph.D. “We weren’t expecting such a strong improvement on productivity linked to exercising. Even more impressive was that these people already thought they were good at their jobs. Participants tracked mood, and as expected, exercising enhanced their mood. However, boosts in productivity were over and above the mood effects; it’s the exercise—or attitude related to exercise—that affects productivity.”

Focus groups confirmed the surprisingly strong effects of workplace exercise. “We expected to hear more about the downside, such as afternoon fatigue,” said McKenna. “But out of 18 themes raised by study participants, 14 were positive. It was almost overwhelming.”

Workplace exercise programs, said McKenna, benefit more than just the workers. “Companies see more productive employees who also work better together. From the public health side, health care costs can be expected to go down for employees who regularly exercise at work. Think of it: fewer sick days, better attendance and more tolerant co-worker relations.”

Next up for McKenna? “We’re planning a program for university employees based on these results. Academics are among the most stressed workers in the United Kingdom. Then we’ll roll it out across other employee groups, and hopefully across the country. The workplace is an ideal setting for promoting physical activity. We can now show more positive outcomes that matter to the employer.”

The American College of Sports Medicine is the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world. More than 20,000 international, national, and regional members are dedicated to promoting and integrating scientific research, education, and practical applications of sports medicine and exercise science to maintain and enhance physical performance, fitness, health, and quality of life.

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