By Matthew S. Thiese, PhD, MSPH
Physical activity, often relegated to the domain of physical health alone, actually possesses potent implications for mental wellness and workplace outcomes. This article explores the multifaceted benefits of exercise, providing insight into its role in reducing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and burnout; its positive impact on workplace performance and satisfaction; and, in this printable handout, 10 tips for practical, evidence-based methods for promoting physical activity in the workplace.
Exercise and Mental Well-being
The connection between our physical and mental health is undeniable, with exercise acting as a powerful tool for both improving and maintaining mental well-being. It’s been proven that physical activity influences a variety of health indicators and outcomes in the workplace:
- Mitigating Depression and Anxiety
- Reducing Burnout
- Lowering Substance and Alcohol Misuse
- Reducing Absenteeism and Presenteeism
- Increasing Productivity
- Growing Resilience
- Improving Job Satisfaction
Physical activity serves as a powerful tool, not just for enhancing physical health, but also for improving mental well-being and workplace outcomes. As research continues to uncover the profound benefits of exercise, it becomes increasingly clear that physical activity should be integral to personal routines and organizational health strategies alike. Employers and employees both stand to gain from encouraging and facilitating regular exercise, making it a win-win investment.
Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety represent two of the most prevalent mental health disorders worldwide. These conditions not only reduce the quality of life for individuals but also carry significant social and economic costs. As our understanding of these conditions advances, so too does our appreciation for the role of physical activity in their management. While the connection between physical and mental health has long been established, the profound impact of exercise as a preventative and therapeutic tool for depression and anxiety is garnering more attention.
The Biochemical Mechanism
The brain is an organ of adaptation and is highly responsive to experiences, including physical activity. When we exercise, our bodies respond by upregulating several neurochemical processes that have a direct impact on our mood and mental health.
One of the key mechanisms involves the release of endorphins, chemicals that interact with the receptors in your brain to reduce the perception of pain and trigger positive feelings in the body. Often known as the body’s natural “feel-good” hormones, endorphins released during exercise can lead to a state known as the “runner’s high”, marked by feelings of happiness and euphoria.
In addition to endorphins, exercise also stimulates the release of several other neurochemicals including serotonin and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that are often the target of antidepressant medications. Serotonin is believed to help regulate mood, happiness, and anxiety, while norepinephrine helps manage the body’s stress response.
Furthermore, physical activity promotes the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein critical for brain health. BDNF promotes the survival of nerve cells (neurons) by playing a role in their growth, maturation (differentiation), and maintenance. It also helps repair and protect brain cells from degeneration. As such, BDNF can potentially reverse brain changes associated with depression and improve mood.
Empirical Evidence for Lowering Depression and Anxiety
A host of studies support the theory that exercise mitigates depression and anxiety. A seminal 1999 Duke University study showed that, after four months of treatment, adults with major depressive disorder (MDD) who participated in an aerobic exercise plan had significantly lower depression scores than a control group treated with an antidepressant medication alone.
More recently, a 2020 study published in the ‘Journal of Psychiatric Research’ found that, in over 1.2 million U.S adults, individuals who exercised had 1.49 (43.2%) fewer days of poor mental health in the past month than individuals who did not exercise. All exercise types were associated with a lower mental health burden, with a minimum reduction seen at 30-60 minutes of exercise 3-5 times per week.
A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials conducted in 2021 further confirmed these findings. The study demonstrated that exercise improved anxiety symptoms among people with a diagnosed anxiety or stress-related disorder.
Burnout is defined as the state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It typically manifests as feelings of overwhelming exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of inefficacy. The World Health Organization officially recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon in 2019, indicating the significant impact it has on workplace wellness and productivity. As we navigate the complexities of modern work life, research suggests that physical activity may serve as an effective tool for preventing and mitigating burnout.
The Physiological Connection
When we exercise, our bodies respond by initiating several physiological responses that help counteract the effects of stress, the primary contributor to burnout. These include the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators, and the stimulation of the production of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that can moderate the brain’s response to stress.
Moreover, exercise improves sleep quality by promoting longer duration and deeper stages of sleep, where both physical and mental restoration occur. Adequate sleep is crucial for emotional regulation, cognitive function, and overall mental health, thus playing a pivotal role in preventing burnout.
Additionally, physical activity encourages the production of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the survival of existing neurons and encourages the growth of new ones, along with the formation of synapses, the connection points between neurons. BDNF can help combat the negative effects of stress on the brain, thus playing a critical role in burnout prevention.
Empirical Evidence for Decreasing Burnout
Scientific studies have provided empirical evidence linking physical activity with reduced burnout. A 2013 study published in the ‘Journal of Applied Psychology’ found that employees who reported more physical activity had significantly lower levels of burnout. The researchers suggested that physical activity could be a means of “psychological detachment from work,” a way to recover from occupational stress.
A later study in 2018 published in the ‘Journal of Occupational Health’ looked at the association between burnout and physical activity in medical students. The study found a significant inverse relationship between self-reported exercise and burnout, indicating that students who exercised more experienced less burnout.
Further, a 2020 study published in the ‘Journal of Clinical Medicine’ explored the impact of a 12-week exercise intervention on burnout and mood disorder symptoms in Information Technology workers. The study showed that regular physical activity significantly reduced the employees’ burnout and depression levels, suggesting that exercise interventions may be effective in improving mental health outcomes in high-stress occupations.
Reducing Substance and Alcohol Misuse
Substance and alcohol misuse are significant concerns with profound social and economic consequences. Although a variety of treatment modalities exist, many individuals struggle with long-term recovery. Excitingly, emerging research suggests that exercise may serve as a beneficial adjunct treatment in addressing substance abuse.
The Neurobiological Connection
Substance use disorders are primarily characterized by changes in the brain’s reward system. The substances produce feelings of euphoria or intense pleasure by enhancing the activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain’s reward circuit. However, with chronic use, individuals typically require more of the substance to achieve the same high, leading to a cycle of addiction.
Exercise, interestingly, also impacts the brain’s reward system, but in a healthier way. Regular physical activity increases the production of endorphins, often called the “feel-good” hormones, which can provide feelings of pleasure and reduce pain. This release of endorphins may produce the euphoric phenomenon known as the “runner’s high,” potentially providing a natural high that can replace the artificial highs sought from substances.
Additionally, physical activity can lead to the upregulation of dopamine receptors, which may become diminished with chronic substance abuse. This upregulation can help restore the balance in the brain’s reward system, aiding in the recovery process.
Exercise also promotes the release of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which has been found to play a significant role in the process of addiction. BDNF can help modulate and normalize the brain changes brought about by substance abuse, thus promoting recovery.
Empirical Evidence for Reduced Substance and Alcohol Misuse
Numerous studies indicate that physical activity can be an effective tool in substance abuse treatment. A 2011 meta-analysis published in ‘Drug and Alcohol Dependence’ found that exercise could significantly reduce alcohol consumption. The researchers theorized that exercise might serve as a healthy coping strategy, helping individuals manage stress and cravings without resorting to alcohol.
A 2014 study published in ‘PLOS ONE’ found that individuals with a substance use disorder who participated in regular exercise had significantly lower substance use rates compared to those who were less active. The research suggested that exercise might provide a healthy, alternative activity to substance use, promoting recovery and preventing relapse.
Furthermore, a 2017 review article in ‘Mental Health and Physical Activity’ explored the impact of exercise on addiction recovery. The review found evidence to suggest that exercise can reduce cravings and substance use, improve mental health outcomes associated with substance abuse recovery (like anxiety and depression), and increase abstinence rates.
Reducing Absenteeism and Presenteeism
Absenteeism, defined as the frequent absence from work, and presenteeism, defined as being at work but not fully functioning due to illness or other conditions, are both significant issues in workplaces. These phenomena can lead to reduced productivity and increased costs for companies. Increasingly, research suggests that regular physical activity may serve as a powerful strategy to reduce both absenteeism and presenteeism.
The Health Connection
Exercise is widely recognized as an essential factor in maintaining physical health. Regular physical activity can strengthen the immune system, reducing the risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, and even some cancers. It also aids in the management of existing chronic conditions, preventing disease progression, and reducing associated symptoms. By contributing to overall health, exercise can decrease the likelihood of absenteeism due to illness.
Exercise also plays a significant role in mental health, as it can help manage stress, improve mood, and reduce symptoms of mental disorders like depression and anxiety. Therefore, it can also tackle presenteeism, where employees might be physically present but are mentally or emotionally unwell.
Empirical Evidence for Reduced Absenteeism and Presenteeism
Multiple studies have supported the role of physical activity in reducing absenteeism and presenteeism. A study published in 2011 in the ‘Journal of Physical Activity and Health’ found that Dutch employees who met the recommended guidelines for physical activity had significantly lower sickness absence than those who were less active. Furthermore, the more physical activity the employees engaged in, the lower their sickness absence duration and frequency.
A 2013 study published in ‘The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’ analyzed the impact of a workplace physical activity intervention on absenteeism and productivity in office workers. The study found that the physical activity intervention resulted in a 45% decrease in absenteeism and significant improvements in productivity.
Moreover, a systematic review published in 2017 in the ‘Journal of Occupational Health’ looked at the link between presenteeism and physical activity. The review found a consistent negative association between physical activity and presenteeism, indicating that employees who exercised more had lower levels of presenteeism.
Productivity is a key concern for both individuals and organizations. A less productive workforce can have significant implications on a company’s success and an individual’s career progression. Emerging research suggests that regular physical activity may be a key to enhancing productivity, both physical productivity and cognitive productivity.
The Cognitive Connection
Exercise is known to have substantial benefits for cognitive function, which directly impacts productivity. Regular physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, delivering the oxygen and nutrients necessary for optimal performance. Exercise also stimulates the production of hormones that can enhance the growth of brain cells.
One of the hormones stimulated by exercise is Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which supports the survival of existing neurons and encourages the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses. This can lead to improved memory and thinking skills, contributing to increased productivity.
Exercise also enhances mood and reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. Mental health is crucial for productivity; when we’re feeling good, we’re likely to perform better.
Empirical Evidence for Increased Productivity
The positive impact of exercise on productivity has been supported by numerous scientific studies. A Swedish study published in the ‘Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’ in 2011 found that employees who regularly exercised reported improvements in self-assessed productivity. The employees noted that they could concentrate better, had a clearer head, and felt more capable of making decisions on workdays when they exercised.
A review published in the ‘Journal of Business and Psychology’ in 2015 found a positive correlation between employee physical activity levels and job performance. The review also noted that the employees who engaged in regular physical activity were better at time management and output demands, leading to increased productivity.
Furthermore, a 2019 study published in the ‘British Journal of Sports Medicine’ found that incorporating physical activity breaks during the workday improved the employees’ mood, reduced feelings of fatigue and food cravings, and enhanced cognitive performance, all of which can contribute to productivity.
Resilience, which is defined as the capacity to bounce back from stress or adversity, is an essential attribute in today’s fast-paced and challenging world and is especially important in law. It can help individuals cope with and recover from life’s challenges more effectively, promoting emotional well-being and mental health. Importantly, research suggests that regular physical activity can play a pivotal role in enhancing resilience.
The Biological Link
Exercise stimulates numerous biological processes that collectively contribute to improved resilience. One critical mechanism involves the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, the body’s central stress response system. Chronic stress can lead to dysregulation of the HPA axis, contributing to various health issues, including depression, anxiety, and burnout. Regular exercise, however, can help regulate the HPA axis and moderate the body’s stress response, thereby fostering resilience.
Exercise also promotes the production of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the health of neurons, the primary cells of the brain. BDNF not only protects neurons from stress-induced damage but also supports the formation of new neural connections, enhancing the brain’s adaptability, a key feature of resilience.
Moreover, exercise leads to the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators, and it increases the availability of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, which can help regulate mood and promote feelings of well-being.
Empirical Evidence for Improving Resilience
A growing body of research supports the role of physical activity in fostering resilience. A study published in the ‘Journal of Psychiatric Research’ in 2015 found that adults who engaged in regular physical activity displayed higher levels of resilience and reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
A 2017 study published in the ‘Journal of Affective Disorders’ found that among adolescents, physical activity was significantly associated with better resilience and lower depression and anxiety. This study suggests that physical activity can foster resilience early in life, potentially providing long-term benefits.
Furthermore, a systematic review published in ‘Frontiers in Psychology’ in 2020 synthesized research on the relationship between physical activity and resilience among adults facing psychological stressors. The review found consistent evidence that physical activity was positively associated with resilience, highlighting the potential of exercise in building resilience in the face of stress.
Job satisfaction plays a significant role in overall life satisfaction, performance, and commitment to an organization. It has been shown to reduce turnover in many industries. It’s influenced by many factors, including job security, pay, work-life balance, and physical and mental health. Excitingly, research suggests that regular physical activity can be a critical factor in promoting job satisfaction.
The Physical and Psychological Connection
Regular physical activity is known to improve physical health, reduce stress, enhance mood, boost self-esteem, and improve sleep – all factors that can contribute to job satisfaction. Better physical health can make individuals more capable of handling their job demands, reducing work-related fatigue and discomfort.
Furthermore, exercise has been shown to improve mental health, reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and burnout. These improvements can lead to better emotional well-being, enhancing the quality of life and potentially increasing satisfaction with one’s job.
Exercise can also improve cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and problem-solving, which can translate into better job performance. Better performance can lead to increased job satisfaction as individuals feel more competent and valued in their roles.
Empirical Evidence around Job Satisfaction
Several studies have linked physical activity with job satisfaction. A study published in the ‘Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’ in 2015 found that employees who engaged in regular physical activity reported higher job satisfaction levels.
A 2017 study published in the ‘International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health’ found that physical activity was positively associated with job satisfaction among university employees. The researchers suggested that exercise might help individuals better manage work-related stress, improving their work experience and satisfaction.
Furthermore, a study published in the ‘Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health’ in 2019 found that an organization-sponsored physical activity program could enhance job satisfaction. Employees who participated in the program reported significant improvements in job satisfaction, suggesting that promoting exercise in the workplace could benefit employees and organizations alike.
What can be done
Here are several evidence-based methods to encourage physical activity among employees (see also our downloadable/printable guide detailing these methods):
- Multicomponent Interventions: Organizations can design comprehensive wellness programs that encompass education about the benefits of physical activity, motivational programs like group fitness classes, providing access to fitness facilities, and implementing supportive policies such as flexible work hours.
- Physical Activity Breaks: Encourage regular short breaks for physical activity. This can be as simple as a team-wide stretching break every hour, or more organized activities like group walks around the building or the block.
- Active Commuting: Support active commuting by offering facilities such as bike racks for secure bike storage, shower and locker rooms for employees who cycle or run to work, and promoting ‘bike to work’ or ‘walk to work’ days. Providing subsidized or discounted public transport passes can also encourage active commuting.
- Access to Fitness Facilities: If possible, provide an on-site gym. If this is not feasible, consider partnering with local fitness centers or gyms to provide discounted memberships for your employees.
- Social Events Outside of Work focused on Movement: Organize events outside of the workplace that promote physical activity. Activities that multiple can participate in that encourage light physical activity like disk golf, walks or hikes, or tours of facilities or art galleries are great options. Other more traditional physical activities like softball teams or bowling teams also encourage more physical activity.
- Flexible Working Hours: Introduce flexible work schedules to allow employees time for exercise. This could mean allowing employees to start and finish work at different times, or providing longer lunch breaks for physical activity.
- Active Meetings: Replace some sit-down meetings with walking meetings. Even stand-up meetings can provide a break from sitting and stimulate more dynamic discussion.
- Sit-Stand Desks: Consider investing in sit-stand desks for your employees. These allow workers to alternate between sitting and standing, reducing sedentary time and promoting movement.
- Organizational Support and Culture: Develop policies that support physical activity, such as time off for exercise, and foster a culture that values health. This could involve sharing success stories of employees who engage in regular physical activity or promoting healthful behaviors through internal communications.
- Leadership Engagement: Leaders should act as role models, participating in physical activity initiatives, and regularly communicate the importance of exercise for well-being and productivity.
Emerging research paints a compelling picture of exercise as a potent tool for enhancing mental well-being, reducing the risk of substance abuse, boosting productivity, building resilience, and fostering job satisfaction. The positive impacts of exercise on workplace outcomes are profound. Regular physical activity has been linked to reduced absenteeism and presenteeism, directly contributing to productivity and the bottom line. Moreover, exercise boosts cognitive function, enhancing attention, memory, and problem-solving skills, which are critical for high performance and productivity in the workplace.
Importantly, exercise plays a crucial role in building resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity. By promoting a healthier stress response, supporting brain health, and enhancing mood, exercise helps individuals navigate life’s challenges more effectively. Lastly, regular physical activity contributes to higher job satisfaction, enhancing the quality of life and potentially increasing commitment to an organization.
The wide-ranging benefits of exercise underscore the importance of incorporating physical activity into daily routines and promoting it in workplaces. As an affordable, accessible, and effective strategy, exercise has the potential to transform workplaces, fostering healthier, happier, and more productive employees. Its value extends to individuals, teams, and organizations alike, making it a powerful tool for enhancing both personal well-being and organizational success.
For more information and specific tips for moving more, see IWIL’s Physical Activity Guide from our 2023 Well-Being Week in the Law and a TED Talk by Dr. Suzuki about the brain-changing benefits of exercise.
Matthew S. Thiese, PhD, MSPH has extensive experience in designing and conducting epidemiologic and interventional research. His research focuses on the overlap between a person’s job and their health, including everything from musculoskeletal disorders like Low Back Pain or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, to motor vehicle crashes, to COVID-19, to mental well-being. His research seeks to identify potential risk factors, interventions to prevent injury or illness, evidence-based practice for both treatment and prevention, and assessments of worker health and safety fitness-for-duty. Dr. Thiese currently is conducting research in several different areas of mental health and mental fitness in the law profession.
Dr. Thiese’s graduate degrees are in Public Health, specifically Occupational Epidemiology and Injury Prevention. He is a tenured Associate Professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine and has co-authored numerous articles. He also serves on the board for the Institute for Well-Being in Law as the Vice-President for Research and Scholarship.