How Exercise Can Improve Your Productivity

Dogs running in water with a stick

I’m a big fan of exercise. It’s my go-to activity for getting rid of stress and improving my mood, and it keeps me feeling good day in and day out. As an added bonus, it’s a great way to bond with my wife because we work out together several times a week. Walking, biking, and weightlifting are family favorites, as well as a bit of yoga and aerobic exercise every now and then.

Today, we’re diving into the ways exercise can make you more productive. Whatever your occupation, your walk of life, or your background, exercise can help you solve your problems and get over (or pick up and throw) life’s obstacles.

The Benefits of Exercise

Exercise has so many benefits that it’s probably not possible to cover all of them in a single article on the topic. But hey, this is a blog about getting things done, so we’re gonna take a swing at it anyway. To get us started, we’ll break it down into three areas of benefits when you hit the gym: physical, mental, and emotional.

The Physical Benefits of Exercise

Woman with muscular shoulders

As you know, dieting and exercise are both important to staying in shape. The two have different benefits. Eating well is effective for managing your weight, but dieting alone isn’t enough to get all of the benefits that exercise can offer. Exercise offers a host of great benefits, but it usually isn’t enough to manage your weight effectively. It’s important to think of the two as complementary; however, for now, we’ll focus on just the benefits of exercise.

The physical benefits of exercise are the most obvious. To begin with, if you do it enough, you’re sure to be the belle of the ball by default because the sad truth is, most people don’t. And while vanity might have something to do with the reasons you decide to exercise, there’s much more at stake here than how attractive you look and feel.

The most significant physical benefit to exercise is pretty simple — you’re less likely to die an untimely death. Here are a couple of interesting facts that seem to contradict one another.

  1. One of the most widely held fears by people around the world is the fear of death.
  2. The two most common causes of death in the US are heart disease and cancer, both largely preventable with a healthy diet and exercise!

Huh? Our society fears death, but somehow the most common causes of death are preventable? What kind of insanity is that!

The statistics on this issue are beyond dismal. According to the National Institutes of Health, 74% of men and 64% of women are overweight or obese*. About 1 in every 4 deaths in the US is from heart disease, and 8.5% of adults will be diagnosed with cancer with about 40% of those cases being preventable. These sad numbers constitute one of the defining issues of our time.

If you enjoy living, I recommend doing whatever you can to stay alive as long as possible. I say, without an ounce of irony, that choosing to exercise regularly is a life or death decision. Being fit will help you live longer, and being alive is a much higher priority than pretty much anything else, mostly because those other things become pretty irrelevant if you’re not around to enjoy them. So get some exercise and enjoy the fact that your life will probably be longer for your efforts.

And if being alive longer isn’t enough for you, there are at least a few more physical benefits to exercise. Being healthy means more time feeling well and working on whatever excites you in life, and less time spent recovering from illness. Being fit means you can do fun and rewarding physically demanding activities, like rock climbing, swimming, running, and cliff diving. And being in shape means you’re more likely to find an attractive partner that finds you attractive as well. Those are some sweet perks if you ask me.

The Mental Benefits of Exercise

Boy flexing bicep
Confidence, the breakfast of champions

Now that we’ve covered some of the physical benefits of exercise, let’s jump into the part that makes all of it worthwhile. As long as you’re going to live an unusually long life and be unusually healthy, you may as well enjoy it. Fortunately, exercise can help you do that as well. According to the Brookings Institute, there are lots of ways that exercise will make you more productive.

Let’s take a shallow dive into the world of biology to learn about why exercise is good for our mental health. Here’s the deal: exercise expedites the production of new mitochondria in our cells. If you don’t remember mitochondria from high school biology, let me remind you. Mitochondria are known as the “power plant of the cell” because they produce ATP, the chemical that gives us the ability to exert ourselves both physically and mentally.

So, what does this mean? It means that working out gives your brain more “power plants” to make fuel with. The ATP acts as a fuel source, allowing your brain to work harder for longer. In short, working out makes you smarter. Specifically, these improvements in mental ability include improved memory, increased alertness and focus, and greater creativity. Memory in particular is highly linked to overall intelligence, while creativity is what we’re usually referring to when we call someone a “genius.”

If that last bit made you think to yourself, “Oh no, I have to work out to get smarter?” don’t worry too much. A 2008 study showed that it doesn’t take much to improve your energy levels. Even a low-intensity exercise regimen is good enough to get the juices flowing and raise your energy levels.

I’ll also add from my own experience that vigorous exercise forces you to endure discomfort, which is one of the most important success skills that you can possess. We’re told that “nothing worth doing is easy,” so you better get used to being uncomfortable if you want to accomplish anything worthwhile. Exercise is the perfect way to do that.

The last set of heavy deadlifts, the last mile of a long run, and the last lap after an hour in the pool are all mentally and physically challenging. Training your body and mind to accept discomfort makes you better able to deal with the daily challenges that we all encounter. As I sit writing this article, it’s 1 am and I’m up way past my normal bed time. Of course, I’d much rather be laying comfortably in my bed, but because I deal with discomfort regularly in the gym, the discomfort I feel right now isn’t such a big deal. I make a regular trade-off between comfort and long-term results, so I know in my bones that when this article is finished, the satisfaction will be worth my efforts.

Finally, it’s an unfortunate truth that aging takes a toll on our mental constitution. This happens because neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells, slows down with age. But here’s where exercise comes in. Scientists have shown in experiments with mice that exercise can prevent and delay this decline. That’s right — people who exercise literally have more brain cells in old age than people who don’t. Exercise and eat well, and you may have just as much brain power when you’re 100 as people half your age.

The Emotional Benefits of Exercise

Swimmers doing the butterfly

The emotional effects of exercise allow us to balance our moods and improve our overall happiness because it plays a key role in regulating our brain chemistry. I’m not an expert on this topic, but if I were to take a guess as to why, it might be because our ancestors never had sedentary lives. Being active is the natural order of things for humans, and our brains reward us for our efforts when we find the time to get up and move.

When we exercise, a couple of very interesting things happen in our brains that affect our mood. First, serotonin begins to be released and produced at a higher rate in the brain. Serotonin is one of the most important neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation, and this accelerated release and production is what gives us the notion of “blowing off steam.”

Second, over the long term, regular exercise increases the stores of tryptophan in the brain. Tryptophan is an amino acid, and it’s one of the building blocks of serotonin. Higher levels of tryptophan lead to elevated levels of serotonin production throughout the day, and thus a generally elevated mood.

So, in short, exercise makes you happier during and immediately following a workout, and over time, it tends to make you happier in general. In fact, it’s even more powerful than that. In 1999, a study at Duke University and several subsequent studies showed that aerobic exercise is as effective at reducing and preventing depression as antidepressant drugs. For people struggling with depression, it can be hard to get started on an exercise regimen. I recommend shooting for small successes at first. It doesn’t take much to have a positive effect on your mood, and the snowball can grow from there.

Interestingly, it also turns out that people who simply believe that exercise is a good mood-regulating activity also happen to have higher emotional intelligence. Keep in mind that this is just a correlation between the two for now, but taken together with other information on mood and exercise, the correlation is very suggestive that exercise and emotional intelligence may be connected. I’ve written before about the importance of being part of a supportive community, and being emotionally intelligent is an important aspect of building those communities for ourselves and others.

An Exercise Plan to Boost Your Productivity

Baseball

If you review the dozen studies and articles I linked to in this post, you’ll notice that there’s a common trend. The most proven type of exercise for improving mental and emotional abilities is aerobic exercise. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that some of the most successful people around start their day with a morning walk or run.

Former President Barack Obama has written about running three miles every morning. Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban gets at least an hour of cardio six days a week. Oprah Winfrey’s workout includes 45 minutes of cardio six days a week. You get the idea.

Based on the research I’ve cited, and following in the footsteps of the juggernauts of success that precede us, here’s my simple, one step plan to boosting your productivity with exercise:

Find one fun, vigorous physical activity that you enjoy doing, and do it for 30 minutes or more every day.

It’s that simple.

Stick to this plan as closely and as often as you can. If you slip up and miss a day, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just start again the next day. Over time, you’ll develop a habit of staying fit, and you’ll begin to notice a lot of the changes that we’ve talked about. Developing an exercise habit is the single most effective way to improve your productivity and your life.

Of course, there’s no reason you shouldn’t do more than this. If you have specific goals beyond increasing your productivity, like getting stronger, running a marathon, hiking very tall mountains, swimming the English Channel, or whatever, you’ll need to tailor your training to meet those goals. Something that I’m just beginning to fully understand as a beginning weightlifter is that pretty much any activity you want to excel at, physical, mental, or otherwise, is highly skill-specific, and you can target the skills that will allow you to become better at that activity. Just do your research, make a plan to get there, and get to work!

Conclusion

Woman does headstand

The benefits of exercise are so diverse that they can be completely mind-boggling. Taking proper care of our bodies is the only way to have such a profound impact on so many areas of life, yet for many, exercise and a healthy diet are afterthoughts. As I said before: exercise is a matter of life or death, and I mean this both literally and in the sense that people who don’t take care of their own bodies have a much harder time finding great success in their lives and careers.

Whatever your goals in life are, exercise should be at the top of your priority list. It will make you more productive, healthier, and happier. The benefits will manifest themselves in every area of your life, from your relationships to your overall mood and energy level, and will even give you the gift of a longer life. It doesn’t take much at all. Just find something fun, and get action.


*It turns out that the line drawn between “overweight” and “normal” weight is completely arbitrary, and some evidence suggests that being in the “overweight” category might be better in terms of longevity, especially for those who already have chronic disease. This is still an open debate in the medical community called the obesity paradox.

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