How Can Exercise Help Me Stay Focused at Work?

I've always heard that exercise is good for the brain, but does it actually have a real-world impact?

Oct 20, 2014
Outside Magazine
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Five audiobook chapters down, two chapters to go.    Photo: Martinan/ThinkStock


Yes, the lunch break run can seem elusive, often impossible to manage. Just take it—and not because you have a race coming up. Exercise, the science has repeatedly shown, makes you sharper. But a midday run won't always do. To get the most out of your mind at work, you'll need to weave fitness into your entire day. It's a change you won't regret. 

Wake Up to the Sun—and Run

Start your day with a run. Outdoors is best—more time in the sun ups your level of vitamin D—but don't discount the gym. If you're not dead-set on unplugging, consider it focused time to prep for work or even learn something new. Bring meeting notes or research to mull over if you're hitting the treadmill. Or consider switching out your workout music for something with a little more substance, like a podcast or an audiobook (it worked for these running writers at the Guardian and the Chicago Tribune). Just keep the intensituy low enough to focus, says  Julianne Soviero, author of Unleash Your True Athletic Potential.

Make Every Meeting a Hiking Meeting

Many famous writers have shared eccentric and sometimes hermit-like daily routines, but plenty of creative types do their best thinking while on the move. Take novelist Susan Henderson, who told the Washington Post that she crafts her stories while walking in the woods, dictating into a voice recorder. Your move: Call for a walking meeting or take an outdoor stroll between big projects.

Spending time in nature has been shown to improve people's scores on creativity tests, and one recent Stanford University study found that people were able to think up more creative solutions to problems in the eight minutes after taking a walk, compared to those who sat or were pushed in a wheelchair. Those who walked outdoors reaped the greatest benefits (versus walking indoors on a treadmill). Just don't expect a walk to give you all the answers: The Stanford study found no positive effect on "focused thinking"—the kind you need for questions with only one concrete answer.

Make it Through Lunch with Yoga

When your focus is fading midday, the warrior pose may be your best chance at a productive afternoon. A 2013 study found that 20 minutes of Hatha yoga improved participants' concentration better than 20 minutes of moderate jogging on a treadmill. Why? Walking or jogging may not help clear your mind because you can still think about everything you need to get done, says the study's lead author Neha P. Gothe.

"But with yoga, you are in-the-moment, often guided by the instructor to focus on a particular movement, on breath or on your mind," Gothe says. "While we don't know how exactly this works, these mental exercises seem to affect the way you think outside of yoga practice."

And Recharge at the Gym

Consider replacing your coffee with a few push-ups. Recently, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that just 20 minutes of weight training was associated with a 10 percent improvement in memory up to 48 hours afterward. Study participants performed reps on a leg press machine, but lead author Lisa Weinberg says bodyweight exercises, like lunges and squats, could work too. 

"The body releases specific hormones in response to exercise, and we think that has a direct impact on memory," she says. "Based on our results, we'd recommend you study something, then work out for 20 minutes immediately after; that may improve how much of it you remember for the next couple of days." (She notes that cardio exercise likely has similar benefits, although it may not be as easy to squeeze in during a busy day.) 

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