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How Physical Activity Enhances Productivity

written by Marie-Josée Shaar 24 May 2010

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!

Stay Calm - 1Ratey 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.

Stay Calm - 2 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.

Physical = Mental Toughness

Physical = Mental Toughness

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!


Energy Grid

Energy Grid - Healthy Habits Move the Slider to the Right

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.

Jogger in NYC courtesy of Ed Yourdon
Stay Calm courtesy of VMOS
Another Flying Sidekick courtesy of kaibara87

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oz 24 May 2010 - 2:57 pm

MJ – as a health coach you might be interested in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). see https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/wayne-jencke/200810071062

I suspect its what Richard Dienstbier and Lisa Pytlik are referring to.

Deri Latimer 24 May 2010 - 6:40 pm

Fantastic post, Marie-Josee! I reference ‘The Power of Full Engagement’ frequently in my training seminars and keynotes. I love the added note in your post that only moving creatures have a brain and it is in fact movement that generates brain activity…laeding to better problem solving and increased creativity. Who’s not interested in more of that in their organization??
Regards, Deri

Marie-Josée Salvas 24 May 2010 - 10:15 pm

Wayne – I am very interested in learning more about the PNS as that is something I frequently use in my work. I enjoy your article very much and have used it in the past. Could you clarify the link you see between toughness and PNS? Do you think toughness increases the minimum level of arousal needed for the SNS to get in high gear, such that fit people can stay in PNS zone more often?


Marie-Josée Salvas 24 May 2010 - 10:34 pm

Deri, thanks! Glad I could provide you with additional ammunition for your work! Most people think that taking a walking break during the workday is a loss of productivity, but a little biology refresher can certainly bring things back into perspective!

The challenge is that not all corporate cultures are ready to process that info. Many organizations have the “work long and hard” ideology so deeply ingrained that they can’t see past it. For self-assured leaders, it’s easier to handle. But for those who are trying to get to the next level up the corporate ladder, managing other people’s perception is often as important as actual results. In this case, integrating physical activity into the day can become a double-edge sword, increasing well-being and productivity but simultaneously hurting perception. Thoughts, anyone?

Very best,

Jeremy McCarthy 25 May 2010 - 9:33 am

Marie-Josee, I couldn’t agree more with your article. I have learned over the years that I can never be “too busy to exercise”. On the contrary, the busier I am the more essential it is I get to the gym to keep my energy (and my spirits) high.

oz 25 May 2010 - 10:50 am

MJ – its not about being in the PNS zone. Normal levels of PNS allow you to respond and recover more quickly.

The PNS is much faster than the SNS and its the change in PNS that is responsible for mangaing most mild stressors we experience.

With regards to toughness – I don’t know.

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 25 May 2010 - 12:24 pm

Jeremy – thanks for sharing! I too love my exercise when I am busy. I typically get my best ideas when I do cardio, so for me workout time = problem solving/creative thinking time!

Wayne, if you have a good source explaining how the PNS is responsible for managing mild stressors, I’d love to read it! Thanks!


elizabeth somer 25 May 2010 - 3:35 pm

Thanks for citing me, Marie-Jose. I’ve been researching the food and mood link since the early 1990s, and it is very important. My latest book on this topic is Eat Your Way To Happiness (there’s also a Kindle version), Harlequin 2009. And, I absolutely promise if you follow the advice in that book you will be happier, healthier, and mentally more sharp!! (You will probably lose a few pounds, too.)

oz 25 May 2010 - 3:58 pm

MJ – skype me and I’ll explain

Lauren 7 November 2010 - 10:20 pm

I have read a number of your articles, and I think you’re definitely offering good advice to managers and others in leadership positions. But what would you suggest that someone like me who is NOT in charge do to encourage the boss to institute some supports for physical activity breaks during the day? I go to the gym on my lunch hour, but always feel guilty that I am gone an extra ten minutes and then eat lunch at my desk while I’m working.


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