Physical activity can have a huge impact on both our physical health and mental well-being. Research suggests that physical activity is associated with higher perceptions of energy and increased cognitive performance (3). Additionally, exercise improves blood flow to the brain and helps lower our levels of stress hormones (2). While many of us regularly exercise to keep physically fit, how many of us think about how physical activity and exercise can help improve our performance at work?
With companies constantly striving to become more productive and efficient in the workplace, a potential way to achieve this is by optimising the cognitive function of employees. Cognitive functions are mental processes that allow us to carry out any task and are more closely correlated with the mechanisms of learning, processing speed, memory, decision making and distractibility, as opposed to actual knowledge. A higher cognitive performance allows us to decipher work demands and complete them more efficiently, and in turn gives us the ability to better perform. As with most things in life, there is no quick fix to improving our work performance, but could adding some physical exercise into your day really help?
There are many potential mechanisms that may explain why exercise benefits cognitive function. Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. For many people, these can be problematic areas that frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment. More directly, exercise has many physiological factors that impact cognition. Exercise raises your heart rate and increases blood flow, in turn delivering more oxygen to the brain. This leads to neurogenesis, the production of neurons, in certain areas of the brain that control memory and thinking (5). Other research has shown physical activity to increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that directly impacts our memory and learning (1). Similar studies have found that adults with higher cardiovascular fitness have a better cognitive performance than adults deemed physically less fit. This is due to an increase in white matter in the brain (4), which is beneficial as it allows messages to pass from place to place quicker and more efficiently.
How to use exercise to boost workplace performance
It is well established that those who lead predominantly sedentary lifestyles have poorer cognitive function than that of their more active counterparts. But for those who do not regularly exercise, all is not lost, as any increase in physical activity and exercise can lead to improvements in cognitive function. One suggestion is to make sure you are breaking up your sedentary time throughout the day. Take regular breaks to complete some form of physical activity, do some light exercise during lunchtime or be innovative and schedule walking meetings. Additionally, research has found that physical activity can have a long-lasting impact on cognitive performance and that regular exercise can enhance brain function over a lifetime, not just the short term. To make the most of these benefits, exercise needs to be a habitual action and incorporated into our daily lives.
What exercise should I be doing?
Although it seems that the specific type of exercise does have some impact on the rate of optimising cognitive performance, in general, aerobic exercise seems to improve cognitive function the most. This can include easy-moderate walking, running, swimming or cycling. Low intensity training has been found to induce a heightened level of arousal during the post exercise period, that in turn promotes greater cognitive function. It also seems that moderate intensity exercise may be related to increased memory and cognitive flexibility. Meanwhile, the speed of information processing seems to improve the most after high-intensity exercise. A combination of varied intensities of aerobic exercise in your weekly exercise regime may optimise cognitive performance.
Other types of exercise may also be considered, such as resistance training. Resistance training is known to increase strength and improve bone health, with recent studies showing that there may be potential for improved working memory and problem solving after completing resistance training for a prolonged period. Most interestingly, combining aerobic exercise and strength training seems to improve cognitive performance the most.
How long should I be exercising for?
Overall, the duration and intensity of exercise may not be too important, but some studies have reported decrements in cognitive function after completing moderate to high levels of physical activity for 2 hours or more. This may be linked to the associated levels of fatigue and decreased hydration levels. It seems that a mixture of aerobic exercise with a duration >30 minutes, combined with resistance training, that is performed several times per week can lead to the greatest increase in cognitive performance. Exercising for 30 minutes – 1 hour before you start your days’ work, can help prepare you for mental stresses, improve your reaction to complex situations and increase the retention of new information. While this may have an acute effect on your cognitive function, exercising several times a week and over a longer period will lead to long-lasting improvements to cognitive performance.
So, it seems that everyone can incorporate physical activity into their lifestyle to help enhance workplace performance. Now is a great time to put these actions into practice and make long lasting habits that can help us perform better in the workplace!
Practical take home messages:
- Remember that any increase in physical activity and exercise can lead to an improved cognitive function
- A mixture of low to high intensity aerobic exercise and resistance training is optimal for optimising cognitive performance
- Exercise from 30 min up to 2 hours in duration
- Exercising before you start your days’ work, can help optimise cognition and in the short term will improve your reaction to complex situations and increase the retention of new information
- Exercising multiple times per week and over a long period will lead to long-lasting improvements to cognitive performance
Lauren Gourlay, MSc
Science Consultant, ART Health Solutions
1. Erickson, K. I., Voss, M. W., Prakash, R. S., Basak, C., Szabo, A., Chaddock, L., Kim, J. S., Heo, S., Alves, H., White, S. M., Wojcicki, T. R., Mailey, E., Vieira, V. J., Martin, S. A., Pence, B. D., Woods, J. A., McAuley, E., & Kramer, A. F. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(7), 3017-3022.
2. Hansen, Å.M., Blangsted, A.K., Hansen, E.A. et al. (2010). Physical activity, job demand–control, perceived stress–energy, and salivary cortisol in white-collar workers. Int Arch Occup Environ Health, 83, 143–153.
3. Hogan, C. L., Mata, J., & Carstensen, L. L. (2013). Exercise holds immediate benefits for affect and cognition in younger and older adults. Psychology and aging, 28(2), 587–594.
4. Opel, N., Martin, S., Meinert, S. et al. (2019). White matter microstructure mediates the association between physical fitness and cognition in healthy, young adults. Sci Rep, 9, 12885.
5. van Praag, H. (2008). Neurogenesis and Exercise: Past and Future Directions. Neuromol Med 10, 128–140