When it comes to health and wellbeing, we either ignore it, thinking it is unrelated to business success and performance, or we know it is important but do nothing about it. In the last decade, there have been more and more cases of people leaving their jobs or moving on due to stress, burnout, or needing to recharge their batteries. Most people wait until they have fallen ill and then go to see a medical doctor. Doctors are trained to treat illness and disease once it has become well established. They are not trained in illness prevention. If you want to be healthy well into old age, it is up to you to look after yourself and be proactive about your health. There is no silver bullet for illness or diseases like cancer or heart disease. You will not see them coming. They seem to occur out of the blue, but in actuality, they brew in your body undetected for months or years. Many people press on unaware of what may be approaching. Our health is most certainly eroding if we are not paying attention to it. As renowned sociology, health and wellbeing expert Aaron Antonovsky stated, “We are coming to understand health not as the absence of disease, but rather as the process by which individuals maintain their sense of coherence (ie, sense that life is comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful) and the ability to function in the face of changes in themselves and their relationships with their environment.” The first key factor affecting performance is Exercise. Some businesses seek to tick the health box by having a gym or pool, but the health and fitness of people are largely seen as a private matter. They are not considered commercially relevant. But when people fall ill or need to take time off from work, that becomes commercially relevant. It is time to put health and wellbeing on the business agenda.
The 4 key benefits of Exercise are:
We often hear about the physical benefits of exercise (for example, increased heart health, healthy weight), less often are the psychological benefits mentioned. Exercise can promote psychological health and wellbeing as well as improve quality of life. The following are common psychological benefits gained through exercise:
The impact exercise has on your body, according to neuroscientist Dr Alan Watkins, is highly affected by how you feel about the exercise. If you force yourself to exercise and do not enjoy it, your body reacts catabolically. This means your workout breaks your body down, but does not build it up, because you feel negative about it. On the other hand, if you enjoy your workout this will have an anabolic reaction and build your body up, as you feel more positive about exercising. You should try to devise an exercise regime to incorporate routines or activities that you find enjoyable. By doing so, your psychology as well as your physiology will improve significantly. Music can boost your workout and have a powerful effect on your psychology and cognition. Incorporating music into your workout can have a positive impact on your mood as well as aid in the enjoyment of your exercise. Choose music that uplifts you and puts you in a good zone. Try to choose music where you had positive and happy experiences. This could be music that was playing during a positive life event, a holiday, or go back to the music you were listening to during school and relive those memories. By doing this, you are practicing positive psychology, and as a result, going back to work feeling more energised, optimistic, and having a positive impact on people around you.
A constant pouring of emails, text messages, phone calls, and meetings triggers an ongoing stress response in the brain. This constant pressure has a damaging effect on the way we think and feel. By exercising, we disconnect and escape from all the pressure. We can stop thinking about work and concentrate on a physical activity to offload all the stress. And walking away from any issues or problems helps us come back to them with a new and fresh perspective, assisting in effective decision making and problem solving .
Jump-start the mind for better memory and creativity
The best approach to jump starting the mind is to push the body. We know that exercise improves mood. Recent studies have found that a regular workout regime is an even more powerful mood elevator than prescription antidepressants. What is less well known is the profound impact exercise has on learning, memory and creativity. To understand how exercise can influence our performance at work, it is important to look at what our bodies were originally designed to do. As physician John J. Ratey points out in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, the human body was built to expend a great deal of energy on a daily basis. Our ancient ancestors had to walk long distances just to find enough food to survive. Today, most of us spend the majority of our day sitting in front of a computer. And the lack of mobility creates an imbalance in the body’s functioning. Many of us also have stressful jobs, deadlines to meet, and a lot on our plate. This causes tension to build up. Encountering stressful events activates a fight-or-flight response in our bodies and the release of stress hormones into our system. When we do not act, we risk developing side effects like anxiety and depression. Exercise restores the balance. Why does exercise promote better memory? Ratey summarizes it nicely: “The body was designed to be pushed, and in pushing our bodies we push our brains too. Learning and memory evolved in concert with motor functions that allowed our ancestors to track down food, so as far as our brain is concerned, if we are not moving, there is no real need to learn anything.” A number of organisations have looked for ways of incorporating exercise while working, but people multitasking physical activities is an ineffective strategy. People need to find opportunities to exercise away from their computers and work, in ways that will allow them to give their minds a breather and disconnect from work. The gym is not the only place people can get their exercise fix. Aussie software developer Atlassian, for example, keeps bikes in the lobby of their San Francisco office so that employees can go for a ride during lunch. Exercise does not just improve your health, it gives you a mental edge. Many of us neglect exercising as we are concerned about falling behind at work. But recent research shows that regular exercise can boost your memory, elevate your creativity and improve your performance.
Boost Unconscious Thinking
When you have a pressing deadline or a lot on your plate you usually sit at your desk and force yourself to think and focus on the task or project until it is finished. What if what you really need is to be distracted? We do not usually think of taking a break and are inclined to force ourselves to finish the job at hand even if it takes all day, but just as you cannot sprint a marathon, we should not force our minds to either. While we need time to focus to complete tasks, we tend to force ourselves to keep our heads down too much. Too much focus can hurt your performance and productivity. As I had detailed in my previous blog “Fancy Taking A Stroll?“, besides going for a walk, distraction can also be in the form of a workout. We have seen that when we refrain from attending to a problem too closely, we reach the best decisions. Studies by Dutch Psychologists suggest that conscious minds have limited capacity. When we force ourselves to focus too long, we can only process so much data at one time and only one thought at a time. When we are faced with more information than we can handle, or when we need to make complex decisions, we try to simplify our decisions and can only focus on a small subset of the problem. The unconscious mind is far better at processing large chunks of information simultaneously. More recent studies have also discovered that unconscious thinking is well equipped for creative problem solving and generating innovative ideas. When we refrain from attending to an issue or problem too closely, we reach the best decisions.
Russell Ackoff who was a top thought leader and systems thinker, sums up a system very effectively, “The system is never the sum of its parts, it is the product of their interactions.” With this in mind, giving importance and engaging in all four of the articles in my Performance@Work Series (Develop Emotional Coherence, Why Sleep Matters, and Nutrients Your Body Needs), will enhance and improve your performance. And improve your health and wellbeing for years to come.