Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.
There has been a lot of press about health, fitness, and obesity lately. It seems like everywhere we turn, there are new stats telling us why we need to pay serious attention. As a health coach, the most common excuse I hear for physical inactivity is not lack of information, but lack of time. In this article, I’d like to explain why spending time working out also helps people work smart. In fact, I argue that the time invested in physical activity pays for itself in increased productivity.
For starters, I’d like to point out that only moving creatures have a brain. Living organisms that build roots and stay in one place all their lives may have an intelligence, but no physical brain. Creatures that move have to think in order to feed and defend themselves and survive. Harvard psychiatry professor, John Ratey, points out that it is therefore no surprise that movement generates the brain activity necessary for synaptic connections to be formed and maintained. In other words, moving facilitates learning and remembering, both of which are certainly very good skills for anyone who wants to work smart. In Ratey’s words, exercise is “Mental Miracle-Gro.”
Biochemicals at Work
According to Ratey and Doctors Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz, two other neurotransmitters produced during exercise are serotonin and dopamine. These chemical messengers make us feel good and increase our energy and motivation. The link between feeling good and doing well was already clear from previous positive psychology research by Diener, Biswas-Diener, Lyubomirsky, King, and Seligman. But for the skeptics who still want more concrete (physiological) evidence, research published by Subramanian and colleagues has shown that people solve creative problems better and with more insight when in a positive mood, probably because insight is generated in the same brain region as positive emotions. Creative and insightful problem solving? I say that’s productive!
Ratey and Registered Dietician, Elizabeth Somer, both point out that another helpful biochemical change caused by exercise is reduced cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone which modern lifestyles cause many people to over-produce. In a 2007 opinion survey, 55% of workers report being less productive at work as a result of stress. According to Nanette Mutrie and Guy Faulkner, a single session of exercise can reduce immediate feelings of anxiety.
If a single exercise session is impactful, working out regularly compounds the benefits. In an chapter called simply Toughness, authors Richard Dienstbier and Lisa Pytlik Zilling explain that aerobic activity improves the central nervous system’s resistance to depletion under stress. Toughness corresponds positively to performance in challenging tasks, enhanced learning abilities, and positive physical and psychological health – all good things that enhance the ability to work efficiently.Performance at Work
But has anyone ever studied the direct impact of exercise on work performance? James Loehr and Tony Schwartz have, and they share their results in The Power of Full Engagement. Their work confirms that through increased energy, physical fitness produces higher engagement and better work results.
There would be a lot more to say on the topic, and I have a feeling more research is to come over the next several years. But for now, let me just add one final thought for all leaders and managers: inactivity compromises organizational productivity as much as it does employee health. Due to the contractual nature of your relationship with your staff, you are in a particularly good position to influence their lifestyles. Do something about it – it’s time to get moving!
Author’s Note: This article was inspired by a discussion following Sherri Fisher’s article, Nurturing Your Creative Mindset. It is also a follow-up to her article, When More Work Leads to Lower Achievement and to my earlier own article, When Overworking Leads to Underperforming.
Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.
Dienstbier, R. & Pytlik Zillig, L.M. (2005). Toughness. In C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology, (pp. 512-527). New York: Oxford University Press.
Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131 (6), 803-855.
Mutrie, N. & Faulkner, G. () Physical Activity: Positive Psychology in Motion. In A. Linley & S. Josephs (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice, (pp. 146-164). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Psychologically Healthy Workplaces specifies the types of practices that lead to psychologically healthy and high-performing workplaces.
Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Roizen, M. F. & Oz, M. C. (2005). YOU: The Owner’s Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition: An Insider’s Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger. New York: HarperCollins.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Schwartz, Tony (2008). Youtube video of a talk in the Leading at Google series.
Somer, E. (1999). Food & Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best, Second Edition. New York: Holt Paperbacks
Subramaniam, K. Kounios, J. Parrish, T.B. & Jung-Beeman, M. (2008). A Brain Mechanism for Facilitation of Insight by Positive Affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 21 (3), 415–432.