Quick: what are the benefits of exercise?
I can almost guarantee the health benefits came top of mind first: “I exercise to stay healthy” or “I exercise to get fit” or “I exercise to lose weight” or “I exercise to feel good,” etc., etc. While training has a myriad of health benefits that are indeed ubiquitous, the less overt and often neglected rewards include improved productivity, a faster rate of learning, and more focus at cognitive tasks—both during exercise and post-workout.
I started working out in 2008 for one of the most common reasons: to lose weight. Over the course of 13 years however, my fitness goals have morphed— from using exercise as the major catalyst to achieve my body recomposition goals (lose fat and build muscle) to now using exercise as a tool (and secret weapon) to tap into my creativity, get more work done, better absorb difficult material, and enhance my focus.
There’s a plethora of blog posts on the topic of why you should exercise for your health, but this post will focus more on the latter benefits and how you, the reader, can reframe exercise to include it as an indispensable tool in your workday.
Exercise and Productivity
I almost always start my day with reading and writing. I’m either working on my book, a blog post or social post, and sometimes all three. When I feel like I’m in a good place for the day, rather than publish immediately, I typically give my writing some breathing room. I let the ideas and the writing sink in and when I’m out for a run, that’s when I can feel the sentences come together— move this paragraph around, add this, remove that. Oftentimes, I’ll come up with a phrase that sums up an idea perfectly; I’ll stop mid-run and jot it down in the Notes app on my phone so I don’t let the idea slip away.
Exercise gives us space from doing work. For me, it’s the time I need to work out ideas in my head. All my self-proclaimed good ideas can be attributed to the space I allow myself during my runs. This isn’t limited to just being outside in nature—ideas also materialize when I’m in the midst of a treadmill workout. Sometimes my ideas are an amalgamation of what I’m reading and currently writing about, and sometimes an entirely new idea will just pop into my mind seemingly out of nowhere. Over the last few months, I’ve been reading a lot in the fitness genre (research for the book I’m in the midst of working on), and on the topics of creativity and writing. The heavy deep dives into the two subjects are producing a new amalgam of idea—The Athletic Artist series I came up with in March, for instance.
Not only can we draw the productivity benefits during our runs, but after as well. Research has shown how low intensity steady-state aerobic exercise can positively affect your productivity post-workout: enhanced focus, better “mental stamina”, more self discipline to approach more difficult tasks (or one that generates a lot of the Resistance), among many more. It’s clear that just like all your productivity software, caffeine, hacks and tricks, exercise can be a a powerful mechanism to help you get more done in your workday and more importantly, increase the quality of your work.
Exercise and Learning
[Exercise] influences learning directly, at the cellular level, improving the brain’s potential to log in and process new information. – John Ratey, Spark
Several studies have shown the effect aerobic exercise has on positive cognitive outcomes. Working out can improve academic performance, increase the rate of learning, improve complex problem solving skills, and has been proven in several school settings to increase focus on cognitive tasks in children. In older adults, we can reap the same rewards, but studies have also shown that aerobic exercise can slow down the aging of our brain—both short term and long term, aerobic exercise contributes to overall brain health.
Whether you’re in school, learning new skills for work or reading difficult literature in new genres, by squeezing in some exercise beforehand, you’re better equipped to focus on the task at hand and absorb the material. When I’m learning new disciplines outside my scope of knowledge, I’ll always study mid-day after my workout—my brain is alert, I have more focus, more discipline, and patience to really try to read and absorb the material. Whether you take a short walk mid-day, go for a light jog or bike ride, the time “lost” from doing the activity will be made up tenfold when you return to the learning task. One important caveat here is intensity: high intensity efforts can actually leave us worse off if we push ourselves too hard—it’s better to opt for LISS (low intensity steady-state) exercise to reap the learning rewards.
I think the idea of productive training is an important idea for a few reasons. Many of us tend to push exercise lower down on the totem pole especially those with a demanding job or family. We neglect to take care of ourselves because we believe our job and family takes precedent. I get that. It’s hard to justify carving out this time for ourselves each day. I often feel guilty for taking 1.5-2 hours in the middle of my workday to train—thinking that I should really be working. But the justification for taking the the time out for myself every day is that the attentional space I’m giving myself is work. I am actively working on piecing together sentences for my book, coming up with a solution to a difficult client problem, or simply coming up with new topic ideas to write about. Aside from my early morning hours when my brain is the most alert, working out is my second most productive time of day. “It’s time we started considering physical activity as part of the work itself.” writes Ron Friedman in the Harvard Business Review.
Not only am I ‘productive’ while working out, but I also reap the productivity and learning rewards for hours after I finish. The more benefits we can derive from exercise, the more likely we are to prioritize it into our day. Fitness has transformed my life in so many amazing ways and as I continue to progress in my fitness journey, the more unexpected rewards I reap—outside the realm of health and body composition. Since work makes up such a big part of our lives (at least here in North America), it’s even more important to understand how it can make us better at our jobs so we can actively prioritize it in our workday.