Everyone knows that exercise can improve your health. Exercise is a key part of managing your weight and maintaining healthy hearts, lungs, and other bodily systems. But did you know that exercise can make you more productive? The latest research shows that a regular exercise routine can make you happier, smarter, and more energetic.
A habit of regular exercise will help keep you mentally sharper throughout your entire life. As you age, your body generates fewer and fewer brain cells (a process called neurogenesis). However, early research in mice suggests that exercise can help prevent this slowdown. In other words, by the time they reach their 50s, 60s, and 70s, people who exercise might have more brain cells than their more sedentary peers — giving them a major advantage in the workplace.
Over a shorter time-frame, an exercise routine can give you more energy throughout the day. Most of your cells contain components called mitochondria, often referred to as the cell’s “power plant.” Mitochondria produce the chemical that your body uses as energy, known as ATP. Physical exercise stimulates the development of new mitochondria within your cells, meaning that your body will be able to produce more ATP over time. That gives you more energy to exert yourself physically, but it also means more energy for your brain, boosting your mental output.
To obtain these benefits, you don’t need to sweat up a storm. In a randomized controlled trial, researchers from the University of Georgia split people into three groups: low-intensity exercise, moderate-intensity exercise, and a control group (no exercise). During the six-week experiment, both “exercise” groups reported growing levels of energy (compared to the control group), but there was no discernable difference between the moderate- and low-intensity exercise groups. In fact, the low-intensity group reported less fatigue than the moderate-intensity group.
This experiment suggests that exercise can make you feel more energized within a few weeks. By contrast, the effect of exercise on your mood is immediate. When you exercise, your body releases several different chemicals in your brain, collectively known as neurotransmitters. Although the mechanisms aren’t fully understood, these neurotransmitters seem to reduce the discomfort of exercise and create the sensation often referred to as “runner’s high.”
This experience is highly pleasant, as British economist George MacKerron discovered in a unique, ongoing experiment. MacKerron and his team recruited over 50,000 volunteers to download an app to their smartphone. Roughly once a day, the volunteers’ phones “beep,” at which point each person reports what they are doing and how happy they are. The preliminary results? Exercise makes people very happy — only sex makes people happier. And the happier you are, the more productive you can be.
Despite all these benefits, many people find it hard to exercise regularly. They buy expensive equipment and wear the latest fashion in gym clothes, but they don’t actually get around to working out. To get into an exercise routine, I suggest in my new book, Extreme Productivity, that you organize a group of friends or family to work out together to keep you honest. This group of people can exert peer pressure on those mornings, lunches, or afternoons when you just don’t want to exercise.
Fortunately, working out with others is also more fun, as researchers found by studying elite male rowers at Oxford University. The rowers first exercised on a rowing machine in the company of their teammates; the next day, they performed the same workout at the same intensity, but by themselves. After each session, researchers tested the pain tolerance of each of the athletes, finding a higher pain tolerance when the rowers worked out together. The researchers concluded that exercising with others enhances the release of the pain-suppressing (and happiness-inducing) chemicals in your brain.
The evidence is compelling. A modest exercise habit can help keep you sharper into old age, give you more energy to take on the day, and improve your mood. So stop making excuses, find a group of like-minded peers, and start exercising today!