Human beings were not designed for a sedentary lifestyle.

Our bodies are the product of evolution and for the vast majority of the billion-plus years life forms have been subject to evolution it’s safe to say they haven’t spent an average of seven hours a day sitting behind a desk in an office or a classroom.

Work and learning in comfortable environments are, of course, a blessing of the modern world, but it should come as no surprise to learn that if we use our bodies in ways counter to their design we are, at worst, going to cause problems for them (back injuries and RSI are notoriously common in offices), while, at best, we will fail to utilise their full potential.

Lower Productivity, Lower Health

A recent study by surveyed 2,224 UK-based employees and asked them to complete health and productivity questionnaires. The study found that the survey respondents in the poorest health quartile were 33.5% down on the average productivity of those surveyed. Moreover, those classed in the “high” health risk category were almost four times less likely to make productivity targets than those in the “low” or “medium” risk categories.

“Health status is correlated with productivity,” the study concluded;

“the better the health status of an employee the more productive they are.”

woman stretching

The importance of living “a healthy lifestyle” has, along with equally vague slabs of piecemeal advice like “eating a healthy and balanced diet,” long been a staple of health pamphlets, but the vielife study demonstrates, clearly, a productivity advantage for individuals who take care of themselves and have a good level of physical fitness.

Movement Matters

Next time you’re suffering in the gym or struggling to work up the motivation for a run remember this: it’s not just your body that will benefit from the exercise but your mind. Pushing yourself to work out regularly or even to walk and stretch on a daily basis, helps to maintain balance in the body and sharpness in the mind.

Blood flow in the human body is stimulated by movement. It is well known that “sitting motionless reduces blood flow to the legs, increasing the risk for atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaques in the arteries,” (New York Times). However, lack of movement also restricts blood flow to the brain, and if the brain is unable to access optimum levels of blood (and the precious oxygen it supplies) it cannot reach peak levels of creativity and productivity.

athlete running

Indeed, research suggests that even moving for five minutes an hour can significantly increase levels of productivity and feelings of wellbeing.

A large study involving the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute set out to test this thesis. Led by sports scientist Jack Groppel, the study asked volunteers to combine different bursts of movement (or non-movement) with the completion of cognitive activities (e.g. computer puzzles) and analysed the results.

The study found that subjects who got up for regular, five-minute movement breaks “reported greater happiness, less fatigue and considerably less craving for food” than when they sat for continuous periods. “It’s clear that movement matters,” Dr Groppel concluded, before suggesting that workplaces integrate regular movement breaks into the daily routine.

“Sit Down and Listen”

It has been pointed out by others that movement breaks should also be encouraged in schools. Indeed, given the higher natural energy levels of children, movement breaks may be even more beneficial in the classroom.

“Regularly-scheduled movement breaks throughout the day and movement used within and between lessons,” write, “results in better-behaved, more engaged students who can more easily focus on and retain what they are supposed to be learning.”

The problem with research like the above is that it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. For years children have been told to “sit down and listen” and have been considered “unruly” or to be suffering from a behavioural disorder if they become agitated in the stasis of the classroom.

workplace desk

Likewise, employees who glue themselves to their desks for hours will be considered “diligent” and “productive,” while someone who is continually up and down (gaining the benefits of movement) may be considered a slacker who isn’t pulling their weight.

What Can We Do About It?

The positive correlation between movement and productivity clearly needs greater publicity. As someone with an interest in health and fitness, perhaps you could help introduce some of the initiatives to your workplace.

If your manager doesn’t look impressed when you suggest a five-minute break every hour refer him to the research. Perhaps your arguments will even be persuasive enough to encourage the creation of a small staff gym, for lunchtime workouts, or the introduction of showers to encourage employees to run or cycle to work.

man running to work

Standing meetings are another initiative that can bring the benefits of movement to the workplace. “A workspace that encourages people to stand up is going to lead to more collaborative and more creative outputs,” Andrew Knight, a researcher at Washington University in St Louis told Reuters. Employees who are free to move around, liberated from the seating hierarchy of meetings and able to “think on their feet” can access more of their potential than sedentary counterparts.

A wealth of research indicates that living a healthy lifestyle, with regular movement at its core, benefits the brain as well as the body. Those who take to their feet regularly and keep themselves in shape will be more productive and more likely to reach their potential than those who give in to the ease and comforts of the modern world.

Health and fitness enthusiasts have a performance edge, not just physically but mentally. Keep your matter in motion.