Engaging in physical activity before or during the workday tends to help employees focus at work, according to new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. This is particularly true when there is a match between exercise intensity and the employee’s motivation for exercise.
“I am an avid runner and road biker myself,” said study author Lieke L. ten Brummelhuis, an associate professor in management at Simon Fraser University. “I always reflect on my own work and nonwork behaviors to find out how I can optimize my work, and would often go for a run during lunch time. I had the feeling it helped me deal with stress and tackle work challenges with more energy. I wanted to know if this was the case for more people, which is why I designed a proper study with study participants in Metro Vancouver.”
The researchers recruited participants from four businesses on the west coast of North America. “To participate, the focal employee needed to work 32 hours or more per week, spend 20 hours or more interacting with coworkers, and have two or more workouts greater than or equal to 30 min per work week,” the researchers explained.
In the study, the participants were instructed to wear a Fitbit to track their physical activity and complete questionnaires regarding their motivation for exercise, ego depletion, and self-efficacy for 5 workdays. Ego depletion refers to a decrease in one’s self-control or self-regulation due to the use of willpower (e.g. feeling drained), while self-efficacy is the belief in one’s own ability to achieve a specific task or goal. In addition, a coworker rated the participant’s work focus at the end of each workday.
The final sample included 74 participants.
The researchers found that physical activity before the end of the workday was generally associated with better focus at work. They also found evidence that the benefits of physical activity before the end of the workday were affected by an employee’s motivation for exercise and the intensity of the physical activity.
“Light, moderate and intense exercise is determined by the extent to which it elevates a person’s heart rate,” ten Brummelhuis explained. “Light exercise is activity that puts your heart rate in fat burn zone, moderate is cardio zone, and intense is peak.”
Those who were more motivated by external factors benefitted from moderate physical activity, leading to higher levels of self-efficacy and better focus at work. On the other hand, those more motivated by internal factors (e.g. people who enjoy exercising) benefitted from intense physical activity, but not moderate activity.
“The results are actually very simple,” ten Brummelhuis told PsyPost. “In three sentences: Going for a walk of similarly light physical activity before or during the day helps employees focus at work tasks better that day. For employees who love exercise, intense exercise (like a run) has a similarly beneficial effect. For those who do not like exercise, however, it is better to stick with light or moderate physical activity.”
In a surprise to the researchers, moderate activity was actually disadvantageous among those motivated by internal factors. This suggests that people with more internal motivation need a more challenging workout to feel effective.
“In addition to the finding that intense physical activity increased work focus among people who love exercise, we also found that in this group, engaging in moderate exercise levels backfired,” ten Brummelhuis said. “Whereas intense physical exercise in this highly motivated exercise group increased self-efficacy, also known as feeling confident about your own abilities (or even simpler, feeling good about yourself), engaging in only moderate exercise dampened self-efficacy.”
“We thus speculate that regular exercisers who love exercise only feel good about themselves if they complete an intense workout that challenges them, whereas they do not feel good enough about themselves if they engage in moderately intense exercise.”
Interestingly, light physical activity was also beneficial among those who were higher on intrinsic motivation to exercise. The distinction between physical activity and exercise might explain the results, the researchers said. People who are more motivated by internal factors to exercise may only see a negative impact from less intense physical activity when they view it as an intentional exercise session.
There are several areas deserving of future research, the study authors explained.
“The current study was done among participants who exercise regularly and who were generally quite fit,” ten Brummelhuis noted. “I would love to do this study again, but now look at novice exercisers and less fit employees to find out how they experience working out during or before the workday. It is possible that the effect is not as beneficial because novice exercisers are more prone to injuries, and they might not immediately experience the benefits of exercise that regular exercisers experience (e.g., enhanced endorphins after exercise).”
“In addition, I would like to examine the more immediate effects of a workout for work (e.g., how long do you benefit from positive feelings generated by the workout),” she added. “Finally, in the current study, we looked at exercise that was done before 4pm, but it would be interesting to differentiate between exercise that is done before the start of workday and, for instance, exercise that is done during lunch. Is there a difference? For instance, is lunch exercise more effective because it gives employees a proper break and moment to recharge for work?”
The study, “Is Physical Activity Before the End of the Workday a Drain or a Gain? Daily Implications on Work Focus in Regular Exercisers“, was authored by Lieke L. ten Brummelhuis, Charles Calderwood, Christopher C. Rosen, and Allison S. Gabriel.