Exercise, Stress, and Productivity
Stressed out at work? Go to the gym and work it off. Boss giving you a hard time? Picture your boss’ face on the heavy bag and punch away.
We’ve all been taught that exercise is a great way to reduce stress and for most of us, it really works. But what affect does all this exercise have on our productivity at work the next day?
A recent study in the October issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine looked at the relationship between exercise, workplace stress, and productivity. The results were not what you might imagine.
The study looked at a sample of 2,823 workers in Minnesota who were surveyed on their levels of workplace stress and amount of exercise as well as their productivity on the job. The researchers found a couple of interesting things including (quoting directly from the JOEM Press Release):
- “In general, higher stress levels at work were linked to greater productivity loss. Workers with a higher body mass index were less productive, regardless of other factors.”
- “After adjusting for body mass index, there was a significant interaction between physical activity and stress level. For highly stressed workers, a high level of physical activity was linked to significant productivity loss. In contrast, for workers with relatively low stress levels, physical activity had less effect on productivity.”
What this study appears to show is that the recommendation that you “exercise your stress off” should only apply to low stress levels. The study found that for overweight employees who exercised 7 hours per week, the ones that felt highly stressed at work suffered an estimated productivity loss of 11% while those that felt lightly stressed at work only suffered a productivity decline of 2%. Apparently, trying to “exercise off” a high level of stress leaves you so tired the next day that your productivity suffers, which probably leads to more stress.
The study concluded that when stress levels are high, increased physical activity tends to decrease productivity. If that’s so, then what’s the best way to cope with high stress levels? The study suggests that “stress management is at least as economically relevant to promoting worker health and productivity, compared to more traditional lifestyle factors…”
OK, so what are the takeaways from this? Here are some of the things I found valuable (NOTE: these are totally my opinions – read the study for yourself and come to your own conclusions):
- Workers who are overweight (high BMI) seemed to be more susceptible to stress and productivity loss than workers who were not overweight. The study did not specifically say this but to me, it seemed implied in a number of places. The key takeaway from this observation is to lose the weight. Reduce your BMI and you’ll be in much better shape to handle whatever your workplace dishes out.
- If you face high stress levels as work, you’re much better off learning effective stress management techniques, such as meditation, than you are trying to “work off” the stress with exercise. Heading to the gym after a stressful day only leaves you tired – and the stress is still there.
- What works for me, even after a stressful day, is exercise that requires my complete attention. For example, I head to karate class or practice kickboxing with a partner. It’s hard to worry about how much stress I have when you’re in the ring with someone trying to rearrange your face. You’re forced to focus on the activity, not on the stress. As a result, the stress tends to melt away. On the other hand, if you do an exercise routine that doesn’t require any thought or concentration (weights, stair-master, treadmill etc), then the stress is going to stay front and center.
Stress is a killer, and not just of productivity. It’s effects on blood pressure and heart disease are pretty well documented. However, stress is also a part of everyday life. As a result, you need to learn how to deal with it in a way that reduces it’s effects and doesn’t create more of it.
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