5 Ways to Improve Your Focus and Productivity with Exercise

5 Ways to Improve Your Focus and Productivity with Exercise

For many of us, a workout is one of those mainstays on our to-do lists that always keeps getting put off. The intention is there. But by the time we finish juggling all the meetings and last-minute deadlines, 3 a.m. emails and personal obligations, all we can do is collapse in the couch.

Maybe you’ve looked into different productivity hacks to free up time for exercise. But what if we’re approaching the exercise conundrum backwards? What if, instead of trying to hack our way to more physical activity, we treated working out as a massive productivity hack itself?

You’re probably aware of the physical benefits of working out. Whether it’s lower cholesterol, increased longevity, or just fitting better in your clothes, exercise is great for all of it. The mental benefits, however, are often overlooked. These can translate into a huge edge at work.

Tools like Freedom will help you avoid digital clutter and make more of the time you have – but only within the confines of your current energy levels and ability to focus. Throwing in regular exercise will massively increase your baseline energy, concentration, mood, and a whole lot more.

So let’s talk about that now. We’ll unravel the powerful mind-body connection and then go over some practical ways to incorporate working out into your busy schedule. Let’s get started!

Why Exercise is a Recipe for More Productivity

The physical benefits of exercise are obvious enough. However, it’s the mental ones that can revolutionize your ability to focus and be more productive at work. Here are just a few ways how.

Boosts Energy

This one sounds counterintuitive at first. Wouldn’t a workout make you more tired?

Not exactly. Exercise stimulates the development of mitochondria, the “powerhouse” of your cells. Mitochondria, in turn, produce the chemical your body uses as energy (ATP). This results in not just more energy for the body, but more energy for the brain was well.

Improve energy levels with exercise
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How much exercise do you need to feel the energy-boosting effects?

Not as much as you might think. No need for those grueling two-hour weightlifting sessions before work. A University of Georgia study found that just 10 minutes of walking up and down stairs at a regular pace was more energizing than ingesting 50 milligrams of caffeine.

A small dose of low to moderate exercise is all you need. It might be the last thing you feel like doing when you’re already fatigued, but it could be just the fix you’re looking for to boost your energy.

Improves Your Mood

Physical exercise stimulates your brain to release a cocktail of neurotransmitters. Scientists haven’t unraveled the details yet about why this occurs, but the effects are undeniable. These feel-good chemicals can have a dramatic effect on your mood. Hence the fabled “runner’s high.”

Exercise and working out improves your mood
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Some research reveals that the mood-boosting effects can also last for the long term – even for those with depression. Dr. James Blumenthal, a clinical psychologist at Duke University, found that home-based exercise was generally comparable to the effects of antidepressants on patients with major depressive disorder over the course of four months.

A better mood is a nice benefit on its own, but it also translates into increased productivity. Not to mention you’ll probably improve interactions with coworkers, avoiding drama and getting more things done as a team.

Protects Against Illness

It’s hard to be productive if you’re stuck in bed, knocked out of commission by whatever illness is going around at the moment.

Regular exercise could help keep you in the game. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine followed a group of 1,002 healthy adults over a 12-week period and found that those who exercised regularly experienced fewer (and less severe) symptoms of upper respiratory tract illness than those who didn’t.

The connection between immunity and exercise is still being explored. One theory is that each bout of exercise causes a temporary spike in immune system activity, increasing the numbers of white blood cells and immunoglobulin in the blood.

One thing is for certain; with our schedules as busy as they are, we’ll take every advantage we can get!

Eases Stress

You don’t need to be reminded how stressful work can be. It wears you down mentally and physically. Even office workers have to worry about poor posture, carpal tunnel, and the dangers of excessive sitting.

Exercise will help here on multiple levels here. We’ve already mentioned the neurotransmitters that improve your mood. It also gives you a much-needed break from the barrage of information and other demands of the day. Even low-intensity exercise is enough to improve sleep duration and efficiency. The better our sleep, the lower our levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).

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Challenging the body through exercise also makes workday stresses less disruptive by comparison. It gives us a chance to practice responding to stress in a controlled setting, forcing our bodies to adapt by becoming more efficient at stress response.

Increases Learning, Cognition, and Memory

Today’s knowledge worker is constantly challenged to keep pace with new processes and technologies. Those who commit to lifelong learning position themselves to thrive in this information economy.

Willingness is one thing. Exercise helps you make it a reality. A study from the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise (the kind that gets your heart pumping) boosts the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in learning and verbal memory.

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These benefits compound if you make exercise a habit for life. The body’s ability to generate new brain cells (called neurogenesis) declines steadily with age. However, some fascinating research in mice suggests that exercise can help prevent this decline. So you might literally have more brain cells than your sedentary peers once you reach your 50s, 60s, or 70s.

How to Incorporate Exercise into Your Day

Even if you’re sold on all the awesome productivity benefits of exercise, it can still be hard to find the time. How can you squeeze this into your busy schedule?

Here are five practical tips to get you started.

1. Start Small

If you’re already looking for tips to maximize your productivity, that’s a good sign you have big plans for your life. It’s only logical to make your exercise plan equally ambitious, right?

Not so fast. It might be time to scale those plans back – at least for now. BJ Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford University, recommends a “tiny habits” strategy. Instead of trying to lose 20 pounds or go to the gym for an hour a day, just focus on the smaller steps that will take you there naturally. Building a habit like tying your running shoes and getting outside each morning or just making it to the gym is much less intimidating. Professor Fogg even recommends flossing just one tooth a day to build that habit.

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In other words, keeping things nice and manageable is a major predictor of consistency, and consistency is a major predictor of success.

Consider how you can remove potential sticking points. You could follow a program like Couch to 5K instead of trying to invent your own. You could choose activities that don’t require lots of time, equipment, or money. You could hire a trainer or start a competition with a workout buddy if you’re worried about accountability.

The idea here is to make not following through with exercise next to impossible. If it already feels like a chore before you even start, that’s a bad sign. Which brings us to the next tip…

2. Do Something You Love

This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many people don’t do it. Maybe they think they should embrace Crossfit or yoga or whatever is popular at the moment. Or they pick things that seem hard just because they think “exercise should be difficult.”

The problem: basing your exercise choices on those factors doesn’t take into account your unique lifestyle and personality. If you pick something that doesn’t really appeal to you, it becomes that much harder to force yourself to do it in the middle of a crazy workweek.

Do exercise you enjoy

Good news: you don’t have to! There’s no reason why you can’t focus on activities you enjoy. It might be running, weightlifting, swimming, dancing, or something else. Remember, it only takes low to moderate exercise to reap the productivity benefits.

While it’s true that certain type of exercise are better for certain physical goals (strength, flexibility, etc.), that’s a subject of another post. Do what you like, consistently, and it will help make you more focused and productive.

3. Build It into Your Morning Routine

If you aren’t a morning person, the thought of exercising then is about as appealing as a root canal. Isn’t just waking up and getting ready for work stressful enough?

But consider this. Mornings are unique because “life” hasn’t gotten in the way yet. All your best-laid plans haven’t had time to go off schedule. This gives you a unique opportunity to be proactive and set the tone for the rest of your day at a time when your willpower is highest.

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A lot of us are groggy, so we can’t rely on conscious thought alone. One of the most effective ways to make sure we get our exercise in is to make it part of our routine.

This excellent article from Lifehacker is packed with ways to do just that. Applying our other tips during this time will help you make it a habit. Preparing as much as you can the night before (even sleeping in your gym clothes if you have to) eliminates potential obstacles and excuses.

Is there a way you can build on an existing habit? If you’re up every morning getting kids ready for school or walking the dog, you already have a nice foundation. Finally, treating yourself with a reward like a coffee will help cement the new habit.

4. Take Advantage of Small Moments and Choices

An active, healthy lifestyle is made up of countless small decisions. These seem insignificant when viewed in isolation, but over enough time the effects really pile up.

Even the most productive and organized folks control only so much of their own days. Sure, it would be great to have a sleek home gym, a celebrity chef preparing nutritious meals, and plenty of uninterrupted hours to get fit…

But reality usually doesn’t work like that. We often face time blocks and work environments outside our control. And that’s okay. The name of the game becomes maximizing all the little choices we do have control over. Choices like:

  • Asking your coworkers questions in person instead of over email (they’re probably dealing with email overload anyway)
  • Biking, running, or walking to work if you live close enough
  • Doing some stretches or quick bodyweight exercises at your desk
  • Exercising or stretching while watching your favorite TV shows
  • Parking farther away in garages or lots
  • Scheduling walking meeting with coworkers
  • Taking phone calls standing up
  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Taking walks throughout the day and during your lunch break
  • Using a stand-up desk

Once you become aware of all the little choices you can make to increase your activity, the results start to really add up!

5. Get Social

Group exercise activities have the added benefits of accountability and opportunities to build relationships. One study of elite Oxford University rowers found that exercising in the company of teammates increased their performance and pain tolerance.

Ron Friedman, in an article for the Harvard Business Review, makes a distinction between group activities and collective ones. Group activities include things like yoga classes, pilates, and Crossfit – things that people do together, but only as individuals concerned with individual performance.

Group activities are great if you enjoy them and attend consistently. But if you want some extra accountability, Friedman recommends joining a collective. These are activities like soccer, volleyball, and doubles tennis – where others are counting on you to contribute to a larger goal.

Bottom line: social exercise activities are a great way to stay accountable and meet people who inspire you… and have a whole lot of fun doing it.

The Ultimate Productivity Hack

In a world where most people are overbooked and overwhelmed, exercise can be the edge we need. There’s no shortage of productivity hacks out there. But maybe we should take a quick break from searching for them to make sure we’re taking advantage of one of the most powerful hacks nature has to offer.

Have you noticed exercise affecting your productivity and focus? If so, how? Tweet us @Freedom!