Is there an intrinsic link between physical exercise and work performance? One of the biggest stories to emerge from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was not about the performance of an athlete at all, it was about the opposite. Simone Biles – one of the world’s greatest athletes – made headlines when she withdrew in the midst of the team competition, citing the need to prioritise her own mental health.
"We are living in a world where we are always on. Whether that is pressure at work – being asked to do more with less, balancing work and home, or even increased digital connectivity."
As someone who regularly undertakes a large volume of physical activity, can we still claim a correlation between movement and our ability to get the job done?
Finding a performance connection
Where I work, we started Accolade Wines’ leadership podcast Realising Your Potential to share insights and learnings with our staff and more recently a broad range of individuals from around the world. For Series 3, we specifically invited high-profile guests from the world of elite sport. Each was asked about the importance of physical exercise and its link to mental health. These insights have reinforced our company-held belief in the important link between acquiring resilience and the pursuit of physical activity.
We are living in a world where we are always on. Whether that is pressure at work – being asked to do more with less, balancing work and home, or even increased digital connectivity. Resilience helps us to cope with this and podcast guests, almost unanimously, felt that if physical exercise was embraced it would contribute to improving how we live and work.
Good leaders recognise that our personal lives are entwined with our professional lives. We need to ensure that we’re happy and healthy if we are going to turn up to work every day and give it our best.
Making health and fitness count
Exercise is a core strategy in achieving this. It releases endorphins and serotonin, which improve your mood and pumps blood to your brain. Put simply, exercise helps you think more clearly. It also increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for memory. Companies that encourage their employees to incorporate some form of exercise into every day and work on their mental health, by promoting practices like meditation, will reap the rewards of a more productive workforce.
Physical activity also has a positive impact on our mental health. People who have stronger mental resilience can persevere for longer. Stresses associated with a busy workplace are inevitable, but it is our ability to stick with something in the face of setbacks that is the true indication of success. Indeed, academic and psychologist Angela Duckworth found that a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal, or as she coined it, grit, is the hallmark of high achievers in almost every domain.
"Physical activity was shown to improve concentration, aid memory, speed up learning and lower stress."
Podcast guest Tanner Gardner, COO and Senior Associate Athletic Director at Rice University also believes in the value of grit. Students at his university perform at a high level in sport, and balancing this with a heavy study load teaches them the value of perseverance before they enter the workforce. Prepared to embrace failure, students learn that mustering up the courage to keep going is key to triumph. A key attribute that makes Rice University graduates so attractive to employers.
In our workplace, we have a holistic approach to actively creating a high-performance environment that builds resilience. Exercise is an important part of this and, recently, we launched an ‘Accolade on the Move’ internal campaign which challenged our employees from across the globe to log 150 minutes of exercise a week. Each person competed as part of a team, made up of employees from different countries and departments, because despite their geographical distance, they were working together on a common objective.
Identifying the performance link
So what about the link between our physical exercise and work performance? Well, a report from 2013 found that our mental agility can be directly linked to exercise.
Physical activity was shown to improve concentration, aid memory, speed up learning and lower stress. All factors that contribute to our ability to turn up and perform at work. The article also points out that while many of us are busy and find prioritising physical activity hard – in the long run – it actually saves us time by ensuring we’re more productive overall. Physical movement was also correlated with improvements in mood. Something I am sure you too will appreciate if, like me, your day involves engaging with multiple stakeholders.
It is important that we build the habit of physical activity into our daily lives, but this does not always have to be a gym or a run if that is something you don’t enjoy. As work cultures change, we find ourselves online at unsociable hours to accommodate international meetings or full schedules. Finding time to prioritise a daily habit of exercise enables us to switch our mindset to ensure that we see daily exertion as a precursor to productivity. Much like we prioritise a big project or deadline, we need to make time for our physical health as it is vital to better performance overall. Companies also need to support this change.
Sport has always been a big part of my life, but running is something that I discovered later in life. I’ll be the first to admit I am not a natural, but consistency, hard work and perseverance has made it something that enhances my outlook. For me, nothing can beat the mental clarity that a run before work can bring, and it is also the perfect way to switch off at the end of the day.
Like most things in life, balance is important, but choosing to take part in physical exercise has real physiological benefits to mental clarity and teaches us persistence. I have learned over time that not every run will be my best but that getting through the harder runs builds fitness and resilience, not just for the next run but for work and life.
All of these benefits contribute to the reasons why physical and mental health need to be front and centre, thanks to their intrinsic link to our ability to perform at work.
Anjanette Murfet is the Chief People and Communications Officer at Accolade Wines. She believes passionately in an intrinsic link between exercise and mental health and also believes that at a corporate level, better mental health needs to start from the top.