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Exercise and Productivity

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Dumb bells

What is one thing all productive people have in common? It might not be what you think it is: they all exercise on a regular basis. Besides the health benefits of regular exercise, it also helps your personal productivity in many ways.

There are many benefits of regular exercise that directly affect your productivity:

In the book The Power of Full Engagement, the author talks about how we shouldn’t worry about time management. Rather, we should focus on managing our energy levels because that is the key to productivity and getting things done. To put it in another words, if you are tired or not in the right mood, it can be very hard to get things done.

There are four different types of energy forms, as shown in the illustration below.

The Energy Pyramid of The Power of Full Engagement

The Energy Pyramid of The Power of Full Engagement. Notice how physical energy forms the foundation.

Its pyramid shape shows that physical energy forms the foundation of all energy forms, and physical energy can be broken down in three parts:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Nutrition

We have already written how getting enough sleep is mandatory for being productive (our product Better Sleep helps you with that). Exercise is another key cornerstone of physical energy.

It sounds contradictory, right? We are discussing managing your energy, but doesn’t exercise expend energy? In theory, yes. In reality, regular exercise gets you more hours in a week where you can be focused, alert, and productive. The better shape you are in, the more time you can focus.

You shouldn’t see exercise as something you are expending a couple hours a week. Instead, see it as investing in getting more focused work done over time. The hours you spend working out will equal in amount of time of focused work, or in most cases you can get more hours worth of work. To explain this, let’s first discuss your energy capacity.

Energy capacity

Every single person has a certain amount of energy that he or she can use for productive work. Some people have it more than others. We call this your energy capacity. You can compare it to a car’s fuel tank. It’s the storage place of fuel that you can use. The bigger the capacity, the more energy you can burn. In return, that can be channeled into productive work. Everyone’s fuel tank size is different, but the bigger it is, the more energy you have.

What regular exercise allows you to do is to increase your fuel tank size. In other words, you can increase your energy capacity by exercising your body on a regular basis. This concept is really important to time management because your energy level is really the foundation that determines how much work you can get done.

If you feel at times that you’re too tired to do the things you need to do, it is time to increase your energy capacity. This is done through regular exercise. It is very similar to growing muscles. You need to stress the muscle a little more than it can handle, and then you let is rest. The next time, you go again beyond what your normal capacity is and then rest again. It is about pushing your muscle’s comfort zone and then letting it recover. Over time, your muscle will grow and it can handle more load.

This is exactly how you grow your energy capacity. You go beyond your physical limit for a little bit and then recover from it. Each time you go beyond what you are capable of, you increase your energy capacity. If you don’t exercise at all at the moment, the first step is to start incorporating ways to exercise your body. Perhaps that means walking to work, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Joining the local health club or gym is also a good idea. If you want to improve your productivity, exercising is a must. Don’t take it just from me. When Richard Branson was asked what his secret to productivity was, he had one clear answer: exercise. Here is a short video of him explaining why exercise is so important to your personal productivity.

Feed the intelligent monster

As a reader of this blog, what do you think is your biggest asset?

Most likely, it’s your brain. As knowledge workers, your biggest asset is your brain. Therefore, you should look after it as much as possible. The better you take care of your brain, the more productive you will be.

The brain needs two types of fuel to function: glucose and oxygen. The brain also needs a steady flow of both to operate at full capacity and this is where exercise comes into play. Exercise enhances your body’s ability to transfer glucose and oxygen throughout the body and brain. This is important that you understand this because it’s one of the core principles behind why exercise is key to productivity. Your brain controls almost everything in your body. When it is getting what it needs, you don’t experience any mood swings, you’ll be more energized, and so on. Basically anything that is conducive to being productive and it fights everything that is unfavorable for procrastination. Studies have shown that people who are physically active score better on cognitive tests than people living sedentary lifestyles (see Brain Rules).

According to Brain Rules, we are hardwired to walk 12 miles a day. It’s a law of nature that organisms and animals who were inflexible in movement where more likely to get killed. Our body is made for using our feet, arms, and other body parts every day to survive. We needed it for hunting and gathering, harvesting, growing food, and finding shelter. In today’s sedentary world, that of course doesn’t apply anymore, but now we’re lucky if we get thirty minutes of exercise a day. To have our bodies function optimally, we need to exercise it. Not sit still eight hours a day. So let’s get started with some example workout routines.

Workout routine

By no means are we fitness experts. We are just a bunch of efficient Asians who happen to know a little bit about time management and productivity, but we always advice people to start exercising if they are serious about their personal productivity. If you are totally clueless on what you can do, here are three of our recommendations.

Walking

Walking is a great way to oxygenate your brain. At the most fundamental level, it will help you increase blood circulation and glucose to the brain. According to MD Andrew Weil, author of 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, 45 minutes of walking a day is optimal. This might seem like a lot, but with some creativity you can accumulate this easily.

Interval training

Interval training is truly an efficient way of exercising. It consists of alternating high intensity exercises followed by low intensity exercises. Here are some examples of interval training workouts.

Strength training

You don’t need to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was in his prime to increase your energy capacity. Regular strength training, especially based on your body weight, is all you need. Stronglifts’ 5×5 workout routines are great for this.

Next Actions

  1. If you don’t exercise already, see where you can walk more in your days.
  2. Join a gym near you and start going there at least twice a week.

If you are having trouble getting the sleep you need to be productive, check out our product Better Sleep.

Photo by jerryonlife.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Caleb June 5, 2012 at 2:43AM

Great article. Where do you fit working out into your schedule? I’ve been running at night (because it’s extremely hot during the day where I live) and strength training in the morning (because I feel like I may be inclined to put it off, after a hard day’s work, if I was to defer it to the nighttime). I run on the days that I don’t workout (every other day). I’m wondering if there might be a more scientifically optimal time to exercise that I’ve maybe overlooked. I do notice I feel pretty tired after strength training for the rest of the day…and even for most of the next day. So, my energy levels still have a long way to go!

Reply

Thanh Pham June 9, 2012 at 3:45AM

Hey Caleb if you have been training that much and you continue to do so, you definitely want to look into nutrition. That is such an important factor for your energy levels as you train more. A book I can recommend is Thrive by Brendan Brazier (even if you aren’t vegan, the content is good). It might be that your recovery process is not optimal and nutrition plays an important role in that.

As far as the optimal time, I prefer working out in the morning or at least before lunch time. There is no scientific reasoning behind it. Just like you said, I tend to put off workouts at the end of the day when I might be tired. If I workout in the morning, I feel good for the rest of the day.

Reply

Sarala August 17, 2012 at 12:57AM

Hi Caleb. It is BEST to go for brisk walk or light jogging in the morning rather than during the night. Well, our body needs oxygen for the brain to function in optimum. In the night, plants release CO2 and consume Oxygen. Early morning at sunrise, oxygen level is max. in the atmosphere because plants start reversing the process to release plenty of oxygen.

If you study the food chain/ energy pyramid conceptt you can understand why it is best to be vegen. We get max. primary energy from vegetations. BEST OF LUCK.

Reply

Krishna Prasad November 25, 2013 at 9:01PM

In Indian yoga, our ancestors have done an extensive research which includes one more sheath. Basically, we have discovered pancha koshas (5 sheaths) of body. One can get a glimpse of pancha kosha (http://www.theyogatutor.com/pancha-kosha-the-5-bodies)

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Ryan () March 17, 2014 at 6:12PM

Great post guys (as always), but I have to disagree a bit on the inclusion of strength training as an exercise type that can increase focus and productivity. Walking, yes, running, yes, yoga, pilates, MMA, etc yes – but strength training (5×5 and up to 1rm) is NOT going to help with focus and productivity. While oxygenation and glucose transport are increased by regular exercise, intense strength training is going to offset the usual mental clarity gained by exercise with a tax on the nervous system and need for extended rest. Central Nervous System Fatigue is certainly the subject of some debate, but most professionals agree that it is real, and that training at heavy enough weights to trigger significant CNS fatigue does require more rest, and will result in lower overall productivity immediately following the workout. I know from my own experience (I strength train regularly), that despite my excellent sleep habits (and yes, I bought your guide), clean diet, and lower-stress lifestyle, that after a session of deadlifting 335lbs, I am FRIED. In fact, I have my schedule set up (and thanks to Asian Efficiency this works really well) to tackle only low-energy tasks in the afternoons after I’ve done a heavy weight routine. I can read, catch up on emails, do some light research, participate in conference calls etc., but there’s no way I’m doing any quantitative finance after my CNS has taken that kind of beating.

Great article guys, but maybe have another look at “strength training” as an appropriate energy-generator, or define it more in terms of hypertrophy than true-strength (5×8 won’t burn you out nearly as badly as 5×5 will…).

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