I get the concept that working out before work can make me a better all-round human and better at my job. I just can’t seem to crack it.
If you’re already running, doing yoga or going to the gym before work, you can stop reading now. You are winning at life. And you’ve seen the many ways morning exercise improves your working day. But if like me you want the results but can’t make a routine stick, it could be time to redefine what exercise means.
Access the optimal version of you
Before I get to my new definition of morning workouts, let’s look at what they do. We all know the physiological benefits of working out anytime, not just before work. It keeps our muscles, bones and heart healthy, helps us maintain a healthy weight and cuts the risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Spectacular, though by no means instant results. But aside from general good health, where’s the benefit to our work? And why do so many business leaders see working out before work as a core ingredient in their success?
Apple’s Tim Cook gets up at 4am and works out for an hour to “keep stress at bay.” Twitter’s Jack Dorsey is a late riser at 5am and walks five miles to work because “a healthier lifestyle ultimately makes me more creative and allows me to think more cohesively.”
Clearly these guys are getting something more than staying in good shape, and research from the last decade has shed some light on the performance enhancements you get from working out before work.
Studies into the link between exercise and work have uncovered a smorgasbord of upgrades to the way we feel and perform, from increased self-belief and creativity to faster problem solving and greater productivity.
In one trial involving over 250 sedentary workers, participants were better at managing their time and working with others on the days when they exercised.
Another study found that “steady paced aerobic exercise improved the brain’s ability to solve problems and make decisions fast and effectively. After exercise, people seemed to be able to concentrate and focus much better than before. They were better able to block information that was irrelevant to the task at hand and responded much faster to information relevant to the task.”
But it isn’t exercise itself that dials up our performance. There’s a missing link that connects working out to working well, and it’s all about our mood.
How working out changes our brain
It can take weeks or even months to see the physiological impact of exercise, yet the cognitive benefits of a workout before or after work can be instant. That’s my kind of timeframe. Just think about that for a second. It takes the average person weeks of regular exercise to begin reducing fat, building muscle mass or increasing stamina, but we can experience the mental benefits of exercise from just a single session.
Working out is fertilizer for the brain. Over a longer timeframe, we improve our existing neurons’ ability to learn and adapt – neuroplasticity – and we grow new neurons too. But in the short term, it also has incredible effects on brain chemistry.
When we exercise, we release a cocktail of neurochemicals into the brain, including the ‘mood hormones’ dopamine and serotonin. Ground-breaking new research on an area of biology called myokines shows that when we contract our muscles during exercise, they actually secrete anti-depressant proteins and peptides into our bloodstream and in the case of one called BDNF, directly into our brain.
With that potent mix sloshing around the brain, our memory functions better, we learn faster, and focus longer. It’s not just cognitive function either. A morning workout also gives us greater tolerance to stress, plus more resilience, persistence and positivity – the mental health grand slam.
There are many ways to make the mind-magic happen
So, it’s the chemicals released during exercise that sharpen our mind and help us perform to our best, and the most effective way to generate more of them is through aerobic exercise like running, swimming or cycling. Recent studies have shown that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and resistance training also do the job too.
A 2016 Stanford study revealed that walking can help us be more creative, as participants who walked for just 15 minutes were 60% more creative than those who remained seated. In 2018, research showed that a 30-minute session of ‘moderately intense walking’ was also good enough to increase BDNF.
So almost any exercise will do, and it doesn’t have to be a big chunk of your morning either. According to neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, “it only takes between 10 and 30 minutes of daily physical activity to instantly lift your mood.”
Getting the effects instantly is pretty remarkable, but in order to know when to exercise, we need to know how long it lasts. It is true that the cognitive benefits of working out disappear much quicker than your flat stomach.
Things work a little differently with the brain. When it comes to lifting our mood and building our resistance to stress, the ‘affective’ benefits of exercise can stay with you for up to 24 hours. But cognitive benefits like focus and problem-solving could return to normal in under two hours, which creates a strong case for a brisk walk every couple of hours at work.
Although I’m a convert to the power of exercise over my mind, my morning workout routine is still a big fat fail. Instead of getting stuck on how much time I need to spend on exercise before work and when I can fit that in, what I need is a different mindset, one that sees movement everywhere.
My new secret weapon for working out before work
When journalist Jim Citrin asked 20 CEOs about their daily routines, 70% said they worked out before work, and all of them woke up before 6am. I like the sound of morning exercise, but now my kids are finally sleeping, there’s no way I’m getting up before 6am.
I’ve tried silent alarms, going to bed early, putting my workout clothes next to the bed, incentivizing myself, and none worked. But maybe I’ve failed to figure out how to work out before work because I’ve been hung up on all the wrong factors. What I need is a new way of looking at exercise that’s so simple, it sticks. And instead of thinking of a workout as exercise, experts like Dr Kelly McGonical, Daniel Lieberman and Darryl Edwards believe movement is the key.
Exercise is a relatively new concept, whereas the importance of movement to our species goes way back. As the modern world has evolved, we have engineered movement out of our lives, leaving us feeling the pressure to cram it all into 30 minutes!
For many of us, exercise requires planning, time, commitment and precious willpower we may not want to expend. Yet movement comes in almost infinite shapes and sizes, and if we give it the same status as eating and sleeping, it’s possible to build it into almost any moment of our day, get in the actives minutes we need and keep ‘you time’ for you.
Walking to work instead of driving short distances is an obvious one. If you live in a two-storey home, stairs are a great way to get the heart rate up. If like me you live over one floor, take the longest route from one space to another or do a couple of laps before you reach your destination.
I spend most of my morning making breakfast for the kids and encouraging them to eat. It takes six minutes to boil an egg, or three minutes to toast some bread. That’s dead time I can put to good use, lifting a weight I keep in the kitchen, doing some squats or moving to my favorite tune.
And if that reframing of exercise before work doesn’t get you moving, nothing will. That’s right, doing nothing may literally help you.
You’re moving already, you just don’t see it
There may be another powerful way to boost your physical and mental health that involves doing no more than what you already are. It all comes down to awareness and expectation.
In a 2007 Harvard study involving hotel cleaning staff, half of the participants were encouraged to see the ‘good exercise’ within their regular workday routines and to believe they were already leading an active lifestyle. The other half were left in the dark. A month later, because of that change in mindset rather than any increase in physical activity, the first group experienced some of the effects of exercise, including weight loss and lower blood pressure.
At the start of the study, none of the hotel staff believed they were exercising regularly, some thought they got none at all, and in most cases, their physical health was poor. “The health of the room attendants reflected their perceived levels of exercise rather than their actual levels.” The study suggested that staff were “not receiving the full benefits of their exercise because they were not aware that they were getting exercise at work.” As the study’s lead psychologist said, the improvement in health that followed the change in mindset is all about “noticing new things; it’s about engagement.”
Of all the things I’ve learned about exercise and the brain, that takes the biscuit. Noticing the hours I spend carrying my 4 year old, the yards paced back and forth to get him to sleep, and the miles walked to school and back, could help me engage better with my movement strategy, feel better and work better too. Who knew!
What morning activity works for you, and how does it make you feel throughout the day? If you don’t think you’re doing enough, is there something you already do that you could give yourself credit for?