How does physical fitness help productivity?

Each Tuesday I take the top voted question from readers and answer it.  With 143 votes, this week’s winner was from Naveen Sinha:

Many companies are now providing standings desks, healthy food, and fitness trackers to promote the health of their employees. What patterns have you seen between the workplace environment and employee productivity, especially in terms of health and fitness?

Sick workers are not productive, which means any sane organization will invest in keeping its workforce healthy. More than 1/3 of American adults are obese, which may lead to more preventable illnesses and missed days of work than almost any other factor. Since 80% of jobs today are sedentary, and employees spend half or more of their waking hours at work, there’s a systemic trap that workplaces contribute to a problem that the workplace itself should be helping to solve.

To make the point another way: could you imagine a company that made their workplace as hazardous as possible, with typhus laced spikes jutting out of the floor and trap doors, with starving lions inside, around every corner? Companies invest millions of dollars in salary, training and benefits into their employees and want to get as much out of them as possible for as long as possible. Fitness is simply an important element of health, and organizations naturally care about the health of their workforce.

Productivity beyond basic health is trickier to measure. Productivity itself is also hard to define for creative kinds of work (See: Data Paradox). There are plenty of examples of people with unhealthy lifestyles being extremely productive, as any story of an entrepreneur in a garage living off ramen noodles attests to(related: workplace architecture’s value is overstated). Some of the most productive years for Van Gogh, or your favorite rock band, included abuse of alcohol, other drugs and sleep deprivation.  These are anecdotes of course, but there are so many examples of highly productive creatives, at least in the short term, who made poor health choices. Everyone’s biology and temperament are different, different enough that there is no single answer to what factors makes one specific person productive or not.

But in the longer term there’s much support that regular fitness only helps workers and workplaces. There’s evidence it improves concentration, lowers stress, makes workers happier on days when they exercise, and even helps with depression. I think the inability to concentrate is a  fundamental problem that explains what’s wrong not just workplaces, but culture at large, and exercise contributes to developing powers of concentration.

I looked for studies claiming that exercises reduces productivity and didn’t find a single one. Of course that could mean that there’s not much funding in disproving the benefits of exercise, but that’s beyond even my level of skepticism about studies. The human body evolved to expect sustained exercise, as 20,000 years ago we had to work our bodies every day just to eat and find shelter. It makes sense that our bodies work best when we use them regularly. Even the U.S. government recommends 30 minutes of exercise per day for everyone.

My favorite reference about the value of exercise is about its relationship to stress and worry:

If you are one of those chronically upset worriers, Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, has a prescription for you: exercise. “If you could give one magic pill that would improve physical health, mood, reduce weight,” this would be it, Waldinger says.

I couldn’t find data to support it, but my hypothesis is any workplace that provides standing desks, fitness membership discounts and even healthy food, recognizes that employees are adults and should be enabled to make choices about not just lifestyle, but workstyle. It reflects a philosophy of empowering employees and giving them choices, rather than dictating policy. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a correlation between organizations that had these perks and ones that allow workers to choose to work remotely.

If you’re looking for advice on how to craft an exercise program, James Clear’s post is the place to start.


9 Responses to “How does physical fitness help productivity?”

  1. Sean Crawford

    Here in Calgary, every big oil company office tower, unbeknownst to the public, has exercise facilities and at least one has an indoor jogging track, many storeys above the ground. During my college years I came across studies that such facilities were good for the “bottom line.”

    Since then I’ve decided that if society ever changes to having a daycare in every tower then it will be because studies have shown that on-site daycare lowers absenteeism, increases productivity, and so forth.

    Change happens. I dimly recall when towers, residential and office, were single function all the way down. Now they have stores and things on the bottom floor, something the “Peter principle” guy had predicted. (In the Peter Prescription)

  2. Phil Simon

    About ten years ago, I worked with a woman who didn’t believe in sick days. Call her Marie.

    She’d come to work sick as a dog, “powering through” in her quest to climb the corporate ladder. In the process, she made others sick.

    Was Marie productive? Sure…but the net effect was negative. She didn’t care, though. She scored points with her manager for her work ethic. I looked at Marie’s LinkedIn profile a few years ago and she was a VP.

    If I were her manager (and not a colleague), I would have made her go home.

    1. Scott Berkun

      The tough it out mentality is entirely selfish – I’ve done it but I see it as selfish now (unless you can truly quarantine yourself in an office or something). It also raises the question of working from home, which should be a viable alternative if sick, even if organizations that don’t have liberal policies about it.

  3. Sean Crawford

    As for working while sick:
    I suppose a corporation big enough to have a ladder (and office politics) is a corporation that does not reward creative thought and innovation—otherwise you could wear a nice pretty surgical mask as they do in Asia…

    I see on the web where you can import from Japan a mask that has a pretty girl printed on the inside.

  4. M Jacky

    Physical Fitness is very important for all of us. It helps us to be healthy. We all want to be healthy but we don’t workout everyday. We all need to workout everyday for being healthy. I would like to thanks to this website admin to provide us like this suggestion.

  5. Ashley Turns

    Thank you so much for mentioning that workers that participate in regular fitness can actually have happier work days, lower levels of stress, and even improved concentration. The office I work at has been considering starting a wellness program for its employees and having regular employee physicals. I’ll have to mention that exercise can help improve concentration so they will make sure that’s in the wellness program as well.

  6. Josep Browne

    Exercise can do a world of good to boost your energy, so even on days when you don’t feel up to it, try to do some kind of physical activity, such as walking, strength training or cardio to kick your feel-good endorphin into high gear. Still uninspired? Try the 10-minute rule. Make a deal with yourself to get moving for at least 10 minutes. Chances are, once you start, you’ll feel so much better that you’ll keep going



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