I’ll confess to you all that I feel slammed by my to-do list right now. Buried under it. I have programs to write, people to call, emails to send, friends and family on my mind, cleaning, and oh my goodness, laundry always.
I am by no means complaining. I am self-employed so I have the ability to structure my work hours, which is a huge blessing. There are no imposed quotas to meet, or gimmicky products to pitch. My clients are wonderful, my own training is paying off in spades, and I feel freer than I have in years.
But there’s still a lot to be done. Number one contributor to my overwhelmed feeling?
There will never be enough hours in life to read everything I want to read. There are thousands of journals, millions of articles, textbooks, blogs, memoirs.
I even like fiction, and I consider it a treat to get a new Clive Cussler book. I usually finish them in 2 sittings, which is why I had to limit my fun-reading in grad school. Apparently “all-nighter” is supposed to refer to studying for class, not staying up reading for fun. Pshh.
Where do I even begin? Maybe “begin” isn’t the right word. Continue? But for every new book, journal, or article I read, I have 100 new questions to research.
Every new person whose insights I appreciate has mentors he or she learned from, and favorite books. Those go on my to-read list too. I didn’t even have space to mention all the people I enjoyed learning from at the recent TSAC Annual Training. When they mentioned books they’ve read, I wrote them down. Authors they follow, I noted too. If you are interested in learning who made an impression on me, click here.
Look at my book collection. Just look at it. This is about a tenth of it, and I’ve got more coming in the mail. And some on my iPad and saved on my computer. Every article I was assigned to read in grad school is still in my possession, because they all had a purpose. They were all important.
These reading habits are mine for multiple reasons. First, I owe it to my clients to be educated. It’s what I went to school for, and what they pay me for. The hours I spend learning and planning benefit them most so I never neglect it.
Secondly, I just love it! I love reading science. I love the methodical nature of studies, and the precise write ups. I love how nearly everything we need to know is out there. It’s basically getting a cheat sheet for how to learn more, how to do better, how to be healthier. Reading journal articles takes a certain amount of practice, but it’s available to you and me.
Sometimes I’m even tempted to skip my workouts just to have more time to read.
Then I read about another benefit of exercise, and it never surprises me. The extent to which exercise benefits us, we cannot even understand.
So in the end I usually do not skip my workouts because science gives me my answer again.
Unexpected Benefits of Exercise
Exercise benefits our productivity in many ways, two of which are physically and cognitively.
Physically, exercise can make your day to day tasks easier. This means you have more time to do your activities of daily living, and they are easier on you. They will take less energy, less fortitude, and allow you to do more with all the extra effort you save.
Likewise, exercise can reframe your mood, both in the short and long term. It can increase productivity, creativity, cognitive performance, and stave off decline.
Physical Benefits of Exercise on Productivity
If you google “physical activity and cognition”, 2,140,000 results show up. Incredible! This is pretty well known so let’s consider the other long term benefit, increases in work capacity.
Exercise can make your every day better by improving your physical capacity. If your body is trained to do more, then your activities of daily living with take less out of you. You’ll have more strength and energy left to do the things you want to do.
Consider how many steps you take per day. If you take 8,000 steps per day, then a long trip to the grocery store might take a large amount of those. In this case, some unplanned event might take a disproportional amount of energy.
This happens frequently in real life. Maybe a car breaks down and you have to walk half a mile, or a shopping trip with friends turns into more walking than you expected. Sometimes you meet up with friends downtown for dinner, and a change of restaurant plans necessitates an urban hike.
Let’s say you take increase your steps from about 8,000 to 12,000 steps a day. Then, that walk around the mall, or finding the car after a football game, won’t be such a large percentage of your activity.
It is better to be active and ready for even the things you don’t plan for.
Put this in strength terms. Some people think they don’t need to be stronger or don’t see how increased strength will benefit their daily lives, but being stronger can benefit you.
This is obvious for those with physically demanding jobs. For example, military, police, fire and medical personnel always have to be able to move people and things. If these people can only deadlift 200 pounds, they might not be adequately prepared for the job.
Two hundred pounds may sound like a lot. Consider, though, that many people in the general population weigh 200 pounds. If that tactical athlete must move a 160 pound teammate who is carrying 40 pounds of gear, or a 200 pound person in a fire, he is using 100% of his carrying capacity. That is too much – he or she will fatigue soon, if he can even pick up the person. That doesn’t even include any gear he or she is personally carrying.
Now, if that person can deadlift 350 pounds, which should be doable for most males who train strength, then 200 pounds is only 57% of his capacity. In this case, he should be able to move the 200 pound person much easier than if it were almost all his strength allowed.
Many people have elaborated more on this idea, and I certainly don’t claim it as an original thought. It needs to be said many more times so people understand how important strength is.
What if you aren’t a first responder; does this apply to you? Absolutely! Don’t you carry groceries, luggage or children?
If your overall work capacity and maximal strength levels are higher, then these things will not feel like a chore. They will be submaximal work, and will feel much easier. You’ll go through all your activities of daily living and you’ll be less tired at the end of the day because your body’s inherent ability is greater. This is the gift exercise gives you.
Cognitive Benefits of Exercise on Productivity
As mentioned early, it is well documented that exercise benefits mood and can help alleviate depression and anxiety, to differing degrees. What is fascinating is that exercise has also been shown to increase creativity .
A 1997 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that participants increased their post-exercise creativity independent of mood changes.
Participants in the study were part of a group exercise class, and on a separate day, watched an emotionally “neutral” video. They filled out surveys about their mood before and after both the exercise and video to track changes. The surveys were the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale, Affect Balance Scale, and Cook-Medley Hostility Scale.
All participants watched the same video, but half did a more high intensity aerobic exercise intervention, and half did aerobic dance. Both exercise sessions and the video were 25 minutes long.
After the exercise sessions, the participants completed a creativity test, Torrance’s Unusual Uses Test. This asks participants to list as many uses as they could think of for a cardboard box. Another test variation asked the same question, but for tin cans. The number of answers, variety of answers, and originality of answers were all considered in scoring the creativity of the responses.
Not surprisingly, positive mood increased and negative mood decreased after both of the exercise interventions. The opposite was true of the mood changes after watching the video. Positive mood decreased and negative mood increased.
As compared to the post-video creativity, the post-exercise creative score improved. Participants named more uses for the tin can/cardboard box than after the video condition.
The creativity changes were modest but statistically significant. What I find most fascinating is that this creativity increase happened independent of mood changes, suggesting that the exercise is what stimulated the change, not the mood changing the exercise, which changed the creativity level.
No, this study suggest that the physical movement itself is what boosted creativity. Perhaps there is something to pacing the floor, taking a walk, getting your blood flowing to commence the creative process.
Maybe interpretive dance and ballet are more than just live, present tense storytelling. Perhaps these movements are actually means to create the story.
This is heartening for writers, inventors, and all kinds of creators. This study gives us a potential method for overcoming writers block, which is simply to get up and move. It is free, practically risk free, and has tremendous potential benefits.
If nothing else, it gives me a place to start. I will go to the gym, move, sweat, and lift. When I come back, I’ll approach my to-do list with improved mood and energy. Maybe I’ll even find creative solutions to sticking points.
Off I go.
About the author
Kathryn Alexander is a strength coach and personal trainer in Austin, Texas. She loves hiking, college football, and the feel of a perfectly knurled barbell. Read more about Kathryn here.