A tale of three truths: the importance of exercise and its new best friend the wearable device

According to a 2012 ADP survey, 80% of organisations with more than 1,000 employees, and 44% of businesses with 50 to 999 employees, already provide a corporate health programme. Despite this however, thanks to growing workplace pressure and increasing distractions, many of us are still guilty of putting our feet up in our spare time, rather than on the treadmill. 

But if exercise is the key to unlocking productivity, then how can some of the newest technologies spur us on?

Truth #1: Exercise helps productivity peak 

“There are five things that stimulate productivity: physical exercise, mental stimulation, rest, proper food & nutrition and the surprising and startling things around you – that’s what sparks the creativity that’s so important to businesses looking for a continuously innovative workforce,” says James McKenna, Professor of Physical Activity and Health at Leeds Metropolitan University, who has spent his career looking at how exercise can influence individuals.

This understanding is directly relevant to business when you consider the findings of a recent Epson study that questioned almost 6,000 respondents across five European markets and found that increasing innovation was the number one objective of organisations.

In a study conducted by McKenna, over 200 people spent 30 to 60 minutes of their lunch break engaging in a physical activity of their choice. Six out of 10 employees who exercised felt that their time management skills, ability to meet deadlines and mental performance significantly improved. The study showed that there was an overall 17% employee performance boost on days that involved lunchtime exercise, compared to days without.

McKenna also found that “when a person exercises they are more productive for three hours.” During exercise a person releases brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a secreted protein that in humans supports and maintains the activity of existing neurons as well as the generation of new ones, ultimately keeping your brain active and alert. When this is not “used” it dies. And this happens within three hours of its release. 

Employees who exercise in the morning are therefore likely to be more productive for up to three hours immediately after, and those that exercise at lunchtime will be more productive for another three hours in the afternoon. 

While this may sound a little bit too much, or even impossible in our frantic lives, McKenna reminds us that it doesn’t have to be rigorous. In fact, he says, “the majority of white collar workers today fully appreciate the importance of breaks but these breaks normally consist of getting a coffee or smoking a cigarette”.

McKenna confirms these breaks are important to our performance from a cognitive standpoint. “That break however should consist of a ten minute walk rather than a ten minute coffee – we are, at the end of the day, designed to walk for 14 hours a day,” he points out. 

Truth #2: Exercise makes us feel less overwhelmed  

In today’s age of information overload, our brains need to work harder than ever before. This comes at a cost: our brain’s neurons are living cells with metabolisms that can become depleted if we work them too much, making us feel exhausted, overwhelmed and incapable of making decisions. This is especially true within the workplace. 

An international survey of white collar workers by LexisNexis revealed that information overload is a growing problem in the professional world. On average, fifty-nine percent of professionals across the five countries surveyed say that the amount of information they have to process at work has significantly increased since the economic downturn. 

However, according to a Human Capital Trends survey by Deloitte University Press, more than half believe that their organisations are not effective at helping workers address information overload in today’s demanding work environment. The majority (57 percent) say their organisations are “weak” when it comes to helping leaders manage difficult schedules and helping employees manage information flow.

Clearly it can be challenging to navigate through the information overload. Especially when we are all constantly distracted by alerts from social networks, busy working environments and constant emails. In fact, Epson’s research found that phone calls were considered to be the most ‘frequent’ and ‘detrimental’ factors when it comes to distractions in the workplace. 

This was closely followed by ‘general workplace noise’ and ‘emails’. When specifically asked, almost half of European workers identified ‘wasting time reading emails (they are) unnecessarily cc’d on’ as another major distraction in the workplace. 

All this clutter and the constant interruptions in our daily working lives can lead to neglecting important things like exercise. Our will power, which is located at the prefrontal cortex of the brain, “is drawn out over the course of the day,” says McKenna. “The likelihood is if you’ve promised to yourself that you’ll go to the gym in the evening, the reality is you won’t.” 

When it comes to exercise, however, we should really muster up all our will power and remind ourselves to make that trip to the gym. Exercise can make you feel more capable to deal with the information flow at work by minimising your stress levels.

Physical activity reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and stimulates the production of endorphins - chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators.

Truth #3: Exercise encourages sleep, and it is utterly crucial 

Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep a day, preferably during the hours of darkness. However “in the Western world at least, we are in a sleeplessness epidemic,” says McKenna. While sleeping our brain cells shrink and open up gaps in our brain tissue to allow the brain’s fluids to wash away the toxins. Enough sleep is needed to clear our brains overnight, which is what we need as employees in order to be inventive, creative and productive in the workplace. 

A study by Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital found that the longer someone is awake, the ability to perform a task is negatively impacted, and this impact of being awake is even stronger at night. Lack of sleep does not only make us less productive, it also limits our ability to think clearly, which can lead to workplace accidents, errors and inefficiency thanks to having to repeat work.

Researchers at the Harvard Medical School surveyed over 10,000 people and concluded that lack of sleep due to insomnia is responsible for an incredible 274,000 workplace accident and errors every year, which adds up to almost 25 billion euros in costs.

Where wearables step in

We often rely on our “habit” brain, not our “thinking” brain, states McKenna, and exercise is no longer a key part of our habits because of all the other distractions around us that now rival the natural aspects in our lives. Wearable devices have the ability to remind us that we do need to go for that walk and see in a visual format the discrepancies between our calorie intake and our energy output. You are able to review and monitor your personal data anywhere, at any time on your smartphone or tablet.

Next generation heart rate and activity tracking devices such as Pulsense and Runsense, recently launched by Epson, have gained considerable traction. They enable you to accurately and continuously monitor your heart rate, activity levels, calorie intake and sleep patterns.

With this information, you can make small but effective changes that will have a positive impact on your lifestyle. These devices also feature a sleep phase wake-up alarm, which wakes you up at an optimal time within a half hour window, during the lighter phase of sleep, so that you can start your working day more refreshed and focused.  

Optical heart rate sensors and accelerometers can also provide you with the ability to review how long you spend in a state of stress or relaxation over a week or a month. In addition, the geolocation system allows you to pinpoint where you were at the time, so you can better identify what caused the stress and potentially avoid that stressful situation in the future.

The business opportunity

Companies can use wearable devices to motivate employees to go for a walk, join the gym or the company’s sport teams, indirectly stimulating teamwork and collaboration. And as a result, employers will have happier, more productive and more valued employees. A growing body of research supports how wearable technologies could provide businesses with new opportunities to boost employee productivity and wellbeing.

A recent study by Dr Chris Brauer of the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London gave three hundred IT decision makers in the UK and the US wearables to use for a trial period of one month. The findings revealed an increase of up to 8.5 percent in productivity and a job satisfaction level of up to 3.5 percent higher in employees who used the wearables.

In Japan, companies have been using Epson’s biometric monitors to help employees monitor and improve their health. The latest generation of these products can be used to help curb obesity, providing people with a simple way to track and monitor activity, calorie consumption and sleep patterns.

With an increased awareness of health risks, the growing desire for self-knowledge through meaningful data and numbers, and the relatively low cost of wearable devices, it is no wonder that such products are set to become a standard offering within corporate health programmes. In fact, ABI Research estimates that by 2018, over 13 million wearable activity tracking devices will be integrated into corporate wellness plans.

It is clear that wearables will become as much a part of corporate wellness programmes as the corporate gym membership.  How corporations plan on introducing these is another matter but the opportunities and rewards are certainly there.  

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