We know we should be exercising and eating right, but it can be hard to fit fitness into our schedules — especially because it can be so tempting to skip the gym and pick up takeout on the way home after a long day at work.
But staying fit does more than just help you look and feel good. It can also make you more productive at home and in the office. And if you’re spending less time on work or chores, you might have more time to hit the gym or sit down to a healthy meal.
Just how fit do you have to be to reap the benefits? John Ratey, an associate clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and author of a book about exercise and the brain, said researchers haven’t yet figured that out. But, he said, the important thing is to get your heart rate up. Many high-intensity workouts — such as jumping rope, running up flights of stairs, or this 7-minute workout app — should get the job done. He also recommended a low-carb diet and, perhaps most important, getting eight hours and 15 minutes of sleep each night.
Read on to learn why focusing on exercise, diet, and sleep is important and how fitness can affect your productivity.
1. Exercise helps your brain grow
Your brain is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more it grows. But if you don’t use it enough, it will deteriorate. So keep hitting the gym or jogging around the block.
Exercise actually uses more brain cells than many other activities, Ratey said. Though you might not realize it, you’re giving your brain a workout along with your body when you exercise.
2. Your diet affects your ability to think clearly
If you don’t eat enough during the day or if the food is not nutritious, you might find it hard to get your job done.
Your brain needs blood glucose and protein from foods, David Heber, a professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in an interview with Smart Business magazine. If you don’t eat properly, you are likely to become less energetic, and it could be harder to think clearly.
So instead of saving you time, skipping lunch might just make your work take longer to complete and seem more challenging. If you’re too busy for a break, try keeping a stash of low-sugar protein bars or other healthy snacks in your desk to eat throughout the day.
3. Exercise helps you stay positive
The more you exercise, the more likely you are to have a positive outlook on your job, home, or any other aspect of your life. That can give you more mental energy, Ratey says.
Positivity can help you become more productive because it allows you to respond easily to situations as they arise, he said. It allows you to be aggressive or go after what you want if necessary. “You’re not retreating from the world,” Ratey said. “You’re more out there.”
4. Fitness combats mental sluggishness
Exercise can help you think better. In addition to waking you up and helping you become more alert, Ratey explained that it can actually increase the amount of space you have in your brain to think about things.
According to Ratey, it can even affect “brain flexibility,” or the ability to change your line of thinking quickly. So the next time you’re exercising, remember that it might help you pay attention better during those long meetings or think on your feet during a presentation.
5. You can get more work done if you’re fit
Several studies have found that employees who are fit — including many who worked for companies that offered employee health or fitness programs — tend to be more productive. They can often get more work done, and their work requires less of an effort, according to a paper prepared for a 2007 World Health Organization conference.
Of course, being healthy can also allow you to miss fewer days of work because of illness. That same World Health Organization paper reported that, in some studies, obesity caused people to take more sick days. And people who are less fit are likely to have to take more time off of work for doctor’s appointments.
If you are getting more done at work and spending less time away from the office for health-related reasons, you’ll be able to better enjoy your free time. Instead of using days off to recover from illnesses or injuries, you can use them more productively: to relax, take a vacation, or spend time with friends or family.