Can Exercise Help With Work-Life Balance?
Build self-efficacy to help manage work and life.
Posted October 30, 2020
"Running: Because it’s cheaper than therapy." — as seen on a bumper sticker
In one of my first jobs after graduating from college, I worked for a gentleman named David. Most days during lunch, David would go to the football stadium near our office and jog up and down the stadium steps multiple times.
Now, that might not be your idea of a fun workout, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Eager to learn and get face time with my boss, I joined David two to three times each week during his lunchtime exercise sessions at the football stadium.
I have no idea how far we jogged or how many steps we went up. But what I do know is that my productivity in the office always increased during those afternoons when I had taken part in the stadium-step madness earlier that day. Years later, I asked David why he thought the stadium jogging made us so productive at work. He responded, “Jogging up and down the steps makes my problems get smaller.”
How Exercise Impacts Work-Life Balance
So what exactly did my boss, David, mean when he said exercise helps his problems get smaller? Was the stress-relief from exercise the key? Or did he feel more confident in handling what seemed like a big problem after he exercised?
I believe a research study I directed helps answer this. One of the research findings of the study, while important, is not necessarily new information: Exercise reduces our stress levels. That is certainly good to know, as stress often leads to work-life imbalance. Stressors from our workplaces and homes are often to blame for our work-life imbalance.
However, the other research finding from our study provides a major reason why exercise is so effective in helping us attain a better work-life balance: people who exercise on a regular basis have a greater sense of self-efficacy. As I mentioned in the Harvard Business Review, self-efficacy “refers to the sense that one is capable of taking things on and getting them done—and although self-efficacy is a matter of self-perception, it has real impact on reality.”
Simply put, self-efficacy is the belief that you can make it through your workday, or that you can take care of your kids while your spouse is away. Many of the problems David faced in the workplace, several of which seemed rather large, began to look much smaller once his sense of confidence was amplified after an exercise session.
Exercise creates this sense of self-efficacy, or confidence because we accomplish something each time we set out to exercise. Life is busy. For many of us, the simple act of lacing up our shoes and getting out the door to exercise can create some level of empowerment. Then once we actually finish that Zumba class, jog those two miles, or complete that weight-lifting session, we feel as though we have really accomplished something.
And the good news is that feeling of self-efficacy tends to carry over into other areas of our lives outside the specific exercise session we just completed. As David recounted, “an hour of exercise creates a feeling that lasts well beyond that hour spent exercising.” When faced with a tough obstacle at work or home, that sense of accomplishment may give you that extra bit of oomph that will help you overcome the challenge.
Here’s an example: Suppose you have a to-do list at work tomorrow that has 10 items on it. Before going to bed tonight, you think through your upcoming day and decide it would be beneficial for you to add exercise to your morning agenda. You plan to jog for 20 minutes throughout your neighborhood tomorrow morning before you go into the office. After your run the next morning, you obtain a sense of accomplishment. Not only did you jog one or two miles, but you also remember that you could have slept a few extra minutes instead of going for that jog, yet you chose to jog.
This sense of accomplishment carries over to your workplace when you get there and get ready to tackle that to-do list. You confront the to-do list with much greater confidence than if you had not earned that sense of self-efficacy earlier that morning. This might make the difference in you getting to leave work on time versus having to stay 30-45 minutes late because you were less confident in your abilities.
Think of fitting exercise into your busy weekly schedule in the same manner of the often-used airplane oxygen mask example. When we fly, we are instructed by airplane personnel that in the event of a drop in airplane cabin pressure we are to put on our oxygen mask first…then help others. The logic is that if you run out of oxygen then you’re unable to help someone else who needs you. It’s the same way with exercise. We need to prioritize exercise so that we can benefit from the decrease in stress and increase in self-efficacy it provides.
Let’s Get Moving!
The first place to start is to know yourself. What I mean by this is to figure out what type of exercise you would enjoy and start from there. If you do not enjoy a particular form of exercise, then you likely will not reap its psychological benefits. You should choose an activity that interests and motivates you.
Here are a few more action steps you can implement if you’d like to use exercise as a work-life balance strategy:
- Ease into your new exercise routine. If you’re new to exercise, or just getting back into the swing of things, take it easy. Trying to do too much too soon will likely cause you to form a negative impression of your new exercise habit. Overdoing it could lead you to become overly sore and will not create a positive feeling for you. Or, if you try to do too much and are unable to accomplish what you set out to do, you’ll miss out on that feeling of self-efficacy. If you want to start jogging, don’t go “all-in” and set out for a 12-mile run on your first day. Instead, try running for 10 minutes and take a few walk breaks. Then you can build up time and/or distance from there. I am personally a fan of Jeff Galloway’s run-walk method and utilize it for most of my jogging.
- Decide if you will exercise alone or in a group. Think through whether you would enjoy exercising alone or with others. This might seem like a small detail, but it can make a difference as to whether you stick with your exercise habit or not. Some people benefit from the alone time that exercise can provide. If your job involves a lot of interaction with others throughout the day, you may enjoy 45 minutes to yourself during your lunch break or shortly after work. On the other hand, group exercise classes provide individuals with a sense of camaraderie and are often seen as more fun. Decide what works best for you.
- Pursue cost-effective methods if money is a concern. Many cost-effective ways of exercising are available for those who want to invest time but not money into their exercise habit. Exercising at home while watching a training or yoga video is practical for parents with young children or people who travel for work. Running, jogging, or walking are about the cheapest forms of exercise in existence. Lace up your shoes, put one foot in front of the other, and go! Bodyweight exercises like air squats, push-ups, and crunches in your garage or living room are free and provide a great workout.
- Determine the time you will devote to exercise. You do not have to spend an hour per day working out to reap the psychological benefits of reduced stress and increased self-efficacy. A 20-minute jog 2 to 3 times per week might be good for some. Others might enjoy doing 30 minutes of bodyweight exercises at home. For those who are really time-strapped, try the popular “7-Minute Workout” that can be done with common household and office furniture. Remember, the goal here is increased self-efficacy and decreased stress levels, which can usually be achieved with short spurts of exercise.
Finally, be sure to consult your healthcare provider prior to beginning a new exercise routine. The main encouragement here is just to get moving! Ultimately, understanding the value that exercise brings to your work-life balance may be your best motivator.
This post is based on an excerpt from my book Balancing Life.