The mental benefits of exercise
Most research on the benefits of exercise area already well-known. Many people are aware that it leads to weight loss, improves cardiovascular fitness, and reduces the risk of cancer. But less familiar are its mental benefits. As a result, even if your only goal is to be successful in business, exercise is a good time investment.
One benefit is increased focus. By doing a long run or set of push-ups and resisting the temptation to give up, you develop focus and perseverance which translates into being able to resist the temptation to check email when sitting down to work. Indeed, a controlled experiment found that exercise improved children’s executive control and ability to ignore distractions. Professor Edmans used to play for the England junior chess team, where players would train by running and swimming even though chess doesn’t involve physical exertion. Instead, endurance training allows the brain to sustain the long periods of mental concentration that chess requires.
A second benefit is empowerment. With exercise, you can immediately see quantifiable results – e.g. you ran further, lifted heavier, or held a plank for longer than the previous week. This is different from other valuable activities (e.g. learning a musical instrument or public speaking) where there are fewer quantifiable short-term milestones. This is valuable to instil a growth mindset – when you see how effort can lead to quantifiable improvement, even in an area that you might not be naturally talented in, this empowers you to take on challenges in other areas rather than accepting your abilities as given. A related benefit is self-mastery, the mindset that you can take control of your life. Indeed, a study found that, after a two-month exercise programme, subjects smoked less, drank less, ate more healthily, and curbed impulse spending.
Incorporating fitness into your life
Once you’re convinced of the value that exercise can bring to your career, take a look at Professor Edman’s tips for building fitness and wellbeing into a busy schedule and breaking down some of the barriers that might have stopped you in the past.
The Behavioural Insights Team (colloquially known as the ‘Nudge Unit’) argues that nudges to change citizens’ behaviour should be Easy, Attractive, and Social, What does this entail in an exercise context?
- Easy: choose an activity that’s convenient, e.g. close to your work or office. This may seem obvious, but people often choose the most difficult workout, regardless of location, thinking this will lead to the fastest results. The consistency of a routine is more important than its intensity.
Another aspect of making it easy is to make it the default – to put it into your regular schedule, so that you’ll automatically go to your spinning class on Saturday at 9am without having to make it a conscious decision.
Note that ‘Easy’ also highlights the value of small changes which, if performed consistently, can make big differences – such as taking the stairs or walking to work. By making this a habit, you’ll take the stairs on autopilot and not need to think about it.
- Attractive: choose an activity that you find fun. Even if it is low intensity, this doesn’t matter – what’s more important is to get some exercise into your routine. Once you’ve made exercise a habit, you can later upgrade to more intense forms. Since most people's excuse for not exercising is "I don't have time", getting in the habit of finding the time is often the most important challenge, rather than choosing the precise activity.
Moreover, there are steps you can undertake to increase the attractiveness of exercise. One is temptation bundling – pairing an enjoyable activity with exercise. A study gave subjects access to audiobooks only when they went to the gym; they had to keep the audiobook in the gym and weren’t allowed to access it elsewhere. This led to a significant increase in gym attendance. A second method is to give yourself a reward after exercise, such as making a fresh fruit smoothie to put in your gym locker, that you can enjoy immediately after completing a workout.
- Social: choose an activity that involves other people. This has multiple benefits. First, it increases the mental benefits of exercise – simply being around other people boosts serotonin. Second, it increases the physical benefits of exercise. ‘Hubs’, where you’re surrounded by other people exerting effort, creates peer pressure to exert effort yourself. Just as it’s easier to study in a library where everyone else is working, it’s easier to work out in a group or team where everyone else is pushing themselves. Third, it’s a commitment device. If you arrange to do an activity with a friend, (even over Zoom) you’re less likely to cancel.