Worldwide, 1.4 billion adults are insufficiently active, with one in three women and one in four men not engaging in adequate physical activity. In fact, there has been no improvement in physical activity levels since 2001, and physical inactivity is twice as bad in high-income countries than in low-income countries.
To combat the negative impact of physical inactivity, in 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a global action plan aimed at reducing physical inactivity by 15% by 2030. By promoting physical activity and encouraging individuals to engage in regular exercise, the WHO seeks to maximize the benefits of physical activity: preventing and managing noncommunicable diseases like cardiovascular diseases (including coronary heart disease and stroke), various types of cancer, improving overall physical and mental well-being, sharpening cognitive capacity, and ensuring healthy growth and development.
Although the benefits of physical activity on general well-being are widely acknowledged, there has been a lack of research on how it impacts outcomes at work, including job performance and health. This is all the more important as various emerging work modes have allowed for greater flexibility and convenience. Yet we’re finding ourselves sitting more and moving less, as many of us no longer have to commute to work or walk from meeting to meeting.
How physical activity affects work performance
Given that most of our waking hours are spent working, in an effort to support the WHO’s initiative to increase physical activity, our recent research points to some important work-related implications of physical activity.
Approximately 200 employees from the UK and China participated in a 10-day study in which we captured self-reported and objective physical activity data (via a wearable smart band device), as well as self- and supervisor-reported work outcomes. We uncovered some noteworthy findings about daily physical activity that impact employees and organizations:
Motivation for physical activity predicts physical activity
It may seem obvious that being motivated to partake in an activity would lead to doing said activity, but anyone who has ever made and then abandoned a New Year’s resolution knows this isn’t necessarily the case. People’s autonomous motivation, a stable individual difference reflecting the degree to which one feels self-determined to engage in a behavior, is a critical personal resource that can prompt individuals to engage in physical activity. Importantly, the more autonomous the form of motivation — in other words, the more people consider physical activity to be a fun and enjoyable activity rather than something to dread — the more likely they are to engage in daily physical activity.
Physical activity accrues next-day, work-relevant resources
We found that daily physical activity generated a package of next-day resources (called “resource caravans”) that contributed to work-related outcomes.
The first resource immediately afforded by physical activity is quality sleep, or a person’s degree of satisfaction with their daily sleep experience. Physical activity promotes protein synthesis and facilitates quality sleep as a homeostatic feedback process benefitting the body and brain. The second resource gain is vigor, an affective resource associated with energy and vitality. The third resource gain is task focus, a cognitive resource that supports enhanced information processing, attention, and concentration.
Physical activity improves next-day job performance and health
Existing research on the impact of physical activity in the work context has focused on physical activity during specific periods (e.g., exercising over the lunch break), neglecting consideration of physical activity throughout the whole day. This has further contributed to inconsistent findings, as employees may perceive a depletion of resources (such as vigor and concentration) immediately after physical activity, which may actually interfere with their work.
All this is to say that it may take some time to experience the work-related benefits of physical activity. Sure enough, our research finds time-lagged benefits of physical activity on next-day task performance, creativity, and health symptoms. Across two studies, we consistently found that employees’ daily physical activity throughout the day generates resource caravans consisting of physical (sleep), affective (vigor), and cognitive (task focus) resources, which further contribute to next-day job performance and health outcomes in different ways. Physical and affective resources serve to reduce daily bodily pains; cognitive resources contribute more to daily task performance; and affective resources and cognitive resources are stronger predictors of self-rated creative performance.
Job self-efficacy shapes the capacity to gain resources from physical activity
Job self-efficacy, which reflects an employee’s perception of their capacity to perform their job, amplifies the resource-generating benefits of daily physical activity on sleep quality and task focus. People with higher levels of self-efficacy tend to hold stronger positive beliefs in their motivation and ability to acquire work-related resources from daily physical activity.
How to get more physical
If you’ve found yourself moving less while working remotely, here are three research-backed ways to reap the many benefits of increasing your physical activity:
Focus on building a habit of daily physical activity.
Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see immediate work-related benefits from physical activity. Our research specifically examined time-lagged, next-day benefits of physical activity, demonstrating significant resource gains that contributed to performance and health payouts. Day by day, concentrate on forming new healthy habits, and results will unfold in time.
Remember that some is better than none.
We often talk ourselves out of physical activity because we’re just too tired, hungry, stressed, or busy (ourselves included!). Our findings echo the perspective of the WHO, in that “some physical activity is better than doing none.” To realize health benefits and minimize the harmful health effects of being sedentary, the WHO recommends that adults ages 18 to 64 years should engage in at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity or at least 1.25 hours of high-intensity physical activity each week.
Our research identifies moderate-intensity physical activity as most impactful for generating physical, affective, and cognitive resource gains that further benefit next-day task performance, creativity, and health outcomes. Given that low-intensity physical activity may require longer engagement to reap resource gains, and high-intensity physical activity may lend itself more easily to injury, moderate-intensity exercise is a more feasible goal for many. Moreover, we found that even short periods of physical activity, even 20 minutes each day, were sufficient to generate resources that contributed to employees’ next-day task performance and health.
Motivated or not, just get moving!
Our research reveals that even employees who dislike exercising can reap benefits from daily physical activity. We also found that autonomously motivated individuals are more likely to participate in physical activity, implicating the “fun factor” as a key driver of physical activity engagement — so find an activity that makes exercise less onerous and more enjoyable. If a bootcamp session isn’t your thing, try a challenging hike or a boxing class. The next time you want to swap exercise for a comfy couch, aim for just 20 minutes.
If you’re looking to up your game at work, make an effort to include more physical activity into your days. Your body will thank you, and your mind will reward you with more energy, better task focus, and improved creativity.
“To Improve Your Work Performance, Get Some Exercise”, HBR May 30, 2023, reprinted with permission of Harvard Business Review and the authors
Bonnie Hayden Cheng is an associate professor of management and the MBA program director at HKU Business School, University of Hong Kong. She is the ex-officio member of the Male Allies Leadership Council, The Women’s Foundation. She was a finalist for the AmCham Champion for Women Award: Women of Influence in 2022. She works with senior executives of companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500, transforming corporate cultures by incorporating wellness into their business strategy.
Yolanda Na LI is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management, Lingnan University, Hong Kong. Her research focuses on understanding how various non-work activities affect work outcomes, why individuals may perform different unethical behaviors at work and their consequences, and the role of emotions in the workplace.