Stop us if this sounds familiar: You get to work early in the morning and stay glued to your desk until it’s time to leave. You barely moved all day, and now you won’t have time to exercise when you get home. (And even if you did have time, it’s hard to resist the siren call of Netflix and the couch.) We’re living in an age where sedentary lifestyles are becoming the new norm. According to one analysis of studies totaling nearly 800,000 people, the average adult spends 50 to 70 percent of his or her time sitting. As you can imagine, this isn’t doing great things for our brains or our bodies. And yet the science on the subject couldn’t be more clear: if we want to perform at our best, we have to get moving.
Making time to exercise, or even incorporating short bursts of movement into our day, can feel challenging, but it’s actually much more doable than you think. And once you make a few small changes, you’ll see how easy it is to feel that much more energized during your day.
How Being Active Improves Your Life and Your Work
We’ll start with the obvious: exercise does a body good. Study after study shows that sedentary lifestyles are linked to poor health outcomes, from increased risk of death during a given time to shorter telomeres (the caps on the ends of your DNA strands that shrink with age), and elevated risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.
Getting active, especially when you’re starting from scratch, is a boon to your physical well-being. One small 2008 study found that previously-sedentary people who spent 20 minutes doing low-intensity exercise (think leisurely walking) three times a week for six weeks increased their energy levels by 20 percent and reduced their fatigue by 65 percent compared to participants who didn’t exercise. Regular exercise is also linked to better sleep quality, another known energy-booster.
Taking up exercise doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym seven days a week, or even staying for very long when you do go. In fact, in one study published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal, an intense, 7-minute body weight routine gave people nearly the same benefits as a long run and a weight training session (Yes, you read that right—a 7-minute workout.) And running just 5 to 6 miles per week is linked to lower risk of certain cancers, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Keep in mind that one way to free yourself from the idea of “exercise” as just another to-do on your already long list is to move toward a broader way of thinking about it: simply as movement.
You can even turn your daily commute into a health-booster. People who regularly biked to work decreased their risk of cancer and heart disease by 45 percent and 46 percent, respectively, according to a 2017 study in the British Medical Journal. Making your commute more active could also help you avoid getting sick. One study found that people who engaged in aerobic exercise at least five days a week were 43 percent less likely to report upper respiratory symptoms than their less-active counterparts.
If you’re desk-bound by day, even a little movement here and there can help. In one study, swapping as little as two minutes of sitting with gentle walking per hour lowered subjects’ risk of premature death by 33 percent compared to people who rarely took a break from sitting.
When it comes to your work performance, exercise may be the best tool you’re not utilizing, from improving your creative problem solving to boosting your productivity and time management skills. Regularly breaking a sweat may even make you more resilient to stress, a study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology suggests.
Nor does it doesn’t take much to make these changes happen. Research has shown that a single session of heart-pumping exercise increases blood flow to the brain’s frontal lobe, which is involved in planning, concentration, goal-setting and time management. A 2010 review in Acta Psychologica also found that just 20 minutes of exercise per day can help your brain process information and improve your memory.
If your mental and emotional well-being are important to you (and whose isn’t?), exercise can help with that, too. One 2017 study published in Cognition and Emotionfound that just one 30-minute session of moderate exercise helped people reduce their negative emotions in response to a stressor. There’s even research that suggests regular exercise may help treat depression in people who don’t respond to medication, and that a 90-minute walk outside can lead to decreased activity in the brain area that controls depressive rumination. And if you’re more into yoga or swimming than walking, studies suggest they can also provide a mood boost.
Here’s one last reason to make exercise part of your day-to-day: it leads to a domino-effect of positive outcomes, according to research published in Personality and Individual Differences in 2017. The study authors wrote that “daily exercise predicted increased positive social and achievement events on the same day. Exercise on one day also predicted greater positive social events on the subsequent day.” Now doesn’t that sound like the kind of ripple effect you want to create in your life?
Commit to Making Changes Now
You’ve seen how much of a difference movement can make it your life. Now it’s time to start incorporating microsteps into your day.
Incorporate 15 more minutes of walking into your day. Take a walking meeting, take the stairs instead of the elevator at work, or get off public transportation one stop before your destination. Research has shown that even low-intensity exercise like walking three times a week can increase energy levels and reduce fatigue over time.
Alternate between sitting and standing (like at a counter or standing desk) throughout your workday. If that isn’t possible, make sure to stand up at least once every hour. This will help avoid health issues like slow blood circulation and swollen ankles that can stem from sitting for long stretches of time.
Schedule your exercise time with a friend. Workout buddies hold you accountable, and studies show that partnerships like this can not only increase exercise frequency but also build emotional support, which has its own health benefits.
Making these small changes will put you on a path towards greater productivity and well-being, where you reap the benefits almost instantly.