I don’t need to tell you that the brain and body are interconnected – you already know that.
And yet, if you’re anything like me, you spend many of your working hours acting as if the things you do with your body have no effect on your mental state whatsoever.
You’ll sit at your desk for a couple of hours straight, barely moving anything other than your fingers tapping at the keyboard, and then wonder why you feel so tired.
Your stress levels start building a few hours after you show up to the office, and they don’t ease off until the clock tells you it’s time to go home. Then you get home and feel so worn out that you don’t feel like doing anything other than lying on the couch, scrolling on your phone.
And if you don’t have the kind of job where a supervisor is breathing down your neck, you might have noticed that you’ve developed a tendency to putter around a lot in the afternoon. Once two o’clock rolls around, you just don’t have it in you to give it your all. So you go slow, you procrastinate, you try to look busy even though you’re not doing much of anything.
All those tendencies are affecting your quality of life, impacting your wellbeing, and making your job a lot less bearable than it should be.
And there’s a simple solution for all of it. By adding some movement throughout your workday, those problems would virtually disappear.
It’s Not the Exercise, It’s the Neurotransmitters
Getting some movement and exercise during work hours can seem frivolous.
After all, you’re busy. You have a to-do list that isn’t getting any shorter. And the last thing you want is for someone to see you doing a set of jumping jacks when you should be on the clock.
But moving your body isn’t a break from being productive. It’s actually a way to regulate the neurotransmitters that will help you work at your full capacity, be better at your job, and get more done.
When those neurotransmitters are in the right zone, that’s when you feel your best. You’re energized, focused, and just plain feel good.
When they’re out of balance, however, that’s when things start to drag. You get hit with fatigue. Your stress levels start climbing. You struggle to give your full, undivided attention to anything. Your job starts to feel like a chore and you can’t wait to be done for the day.
Your Neurochemistry in a Nutshell
There are four major neurotransmitters that are responsible for both your wellbeing and your productivity.
Here’s a brief overview of each of them.
Dopamine affects movement, cognition, pleasure, and motivation. It’s also responsible for controlling the flow of information from one area of the brain to another.
Increased dopamine doesn’t just make you feel better, it also improves memory, attention, and problem solving.
Although cortisol serves a lot of different functions, it’s most commonly known as the stress hormone. That’s because it partners with adrenaline to activate your fight or flight response. Together, they keep you alert and ready for anything that comes your way.
That’s incredibly useful when you’re in danger or need to navigate a dicey situation.
But when you’re just sitting at your desk? Not so much.
In those cases, the only thing excess cortisol will give you is higher blood pressure, increased tension, and an uncomfortable jittery feeling.
On top of that, high cortisone levels have been found to have a detrimental effect on memory, attention, and other brain functions. All of which can make your workdays and your daily life more challenging and frustrating than they would be otherwise.
Norepinephrine is another hormone your body releases in response to stress. It’s responsible for physiological responses like heavier breathing (to send more oxygen to the brain and improve clarity and quick thinking) and increased glucose release (essentially a natural sugar rush).
Skip the stress, though. Give yourself a quick dose of norepinephrine with exercise instead.
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter with several functions, but the most relevant one here is mood regulation.
Higher serotonin is directly linked to lower levels of depression. It also plays a role in learning and memory.
(Learn more in 8 Strategies to Promote Workplace Mental Health)
Give Your Brain a Boost
While you’re at work, your time and ability to exercise will be limited. There’s no treadmill for you to sprint on and you can’t just abandon your post to do thirty minutes of high intensity cardio. Even if you could, you wouldn’t want to get sweaty and exhausted.
Thankfully, even brief stints of low intensity exercise can give you the mood and cognitive benefits you need to power you through the workday. And although it might feel like you’re chained to your desk during work hours, chances are you have more opportunities for movement than you realize.
Here are a few simple ways to build physical activity into your job:
- Take movement breaks: When possible, get up and move around every 20 minutes or so. Even two minutes to stretch your legs and walk around can make a noticeable difference.
- Walk and talk: If you need to have a meeting with someone, see if you can do it while walking around. Not only will this increase your step count, but it will also stimulate creative thinking and encourage more productive conversations.
- Take the stairs: If there’s an elevator in the building, take the stairs instead. If you need to check in with someone in a different department or on a different floor, doing it in person instead of typing out an email will keep your body going.
It also helps to stay on top of your physical activity outside of work. Regular cardiovascular exercises will keep your brain happy and alert. Doing 30 minutes of exercise three times a week is the recommended minimum to see improvements. For even better benefits (both cognitive and physical), aim for 30 minutes five times a week.
If you’ve got an office job, it’s easy to get in a physical rut. And the more sedentary you are at work, the worse it feels to be there.
Thankfully, it’s not difficult to do something about it. All it takes to combat fatigue, improve your productivity, and make your workday more enjoyable is making sure you get a bit of movement two or three times an hour.
Make the decision to regulate your neurotransmitters by being a bit more physical – it’s a no-brainer.