Exercising at work and self-reported work performance
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to address the interplay of workplace exercising on self-reported workplace performance. Design/methodology/approach – A mixed methods design combined a randomised cross-over trial with concurrent focus groups. Three workplaces (two private companies, one public service organisation) were purposefully selected for their provision of on-site exercise facilities, size (>250 employees) and large proportion of sedentary occupations. Two mood diary questionnaires were distributed to employees exercising on-site only. Order of questionnaire completion was randomised: self-selected exercise-day (ExD) or no-exercise day (NExD) first. Exercise specifics (duration, intensity, mode) and ExD mood (pre-/post-exercise) were recorded. On NExD, mood was measured early and late in the working day. A 15-item work performance grid was completed at day-ends. Three on-site focus groups were held concurrently to explore performance-related topics. Findings – Among 201 volunteer respondents (67 per cent female, mean age 38.2 years), mood improved on ExD, pre-to-post exercise (all p<0.01). Performance indicators were higher on ExD, versus NExD (all p<0.01), independent of exercise specifics and workload. Positive changes in performance outcomes were almost exclusively linked to changes in mood. Inductive analysis of focus groups revealed 13 (of 17) themes exhibiting positive outcomes. Employee tolerance and resilience were central to the subjective findings. Research limitations/implications – The naturalistic, dual-paradigm study demonstrated that workday exercise can improve white-collar workers' mood and self-reported performance on days when they exercise at work over days when they do not. There are clear implications not only for employee wellbeing, but also for competitive advantage and motivation by increasing opportunities for exercising at work. Originality/value – This is one of the few studies that addresses the acute effects of exercise in the workplace in the same people. Self-rated productivity effects attributable to exercising during the working day were strongly mediated by changes in mood. Statistical power is amplified within the cross-over design.
Exercising at work and
self-reported work performance
Department of Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences, University of Bristol,
Carnegie Faculty of Education and Sport, Leeds Metropolitan University,
Leeds, UK, and
Department of Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences, University of Bristol,
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to address the interplay of workplace exercising on
self-reported workplace performance.
Design/methodology/approach – A mixed methods design combined a randomised cross-over
trial with concurrent focus groups. Three workplaces (two private companies, one public service
organisation) were purposefully selected for their provision of on-site exercise facilities, size (. 250
employees) and large proportion of sedentary occupations. Two mood diary questionnaires were
distributed to employees exercising on-site only. Order of questionnaire completion was randomised:
self-selected exercise-day (ExD) or no-exercise day (NExD) ﬁrst. Exercise speciﬁcs (duration, intensity,
mode) and ExD mood (pre-/post-exercise) were recorded. On NExD, mood was measured early and late
in the working day. A 15-item work performance grid was completed at day-ends. Three on-site focus
groups were held concurrently to explore performance-related topics.
Findings – Among 201 volunteer respondents (67 per cent female, mean age 38.2 years), mood
improved on ExD, pre-to-post exercise (all p , 0:01). Performance indicators were higher on ExD,
versus NExD (all p , 0:01), independent of exercise speciﬁcs and workload. Positive changes in
performance outcomes were almost exclusively linked to changes in mood. Inductive analysis of focus
groups revealed 13 (of 17) themes exhibiting positive outcomes. Employee tolerance and resilience
were central to the subjective ﬁndings.
Research limitations/implications – The naturalistic, dual-paradigm study demonstrated that
workday exercise can improve white-collar workers’ mood and self-reported performance on days
when they exercise at work over days when they do not. There are clear implications not only for
employee wellbeing, but also for competitive advantage and motivation by increasing opportunities
for exercising at work.
Originality/value – This is one of the few studies that addresses the acute effects of exercise in the
workplace in the same people. Self-rated productivity effects attributable to exercising during the
working day were strongly mediated by changes in mood. Statistical power is ampliﬁed within the
Keywords Exercise, Performance management, Focus groups
Paper type Research paper
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
The authors would like to thank all the participating organisations and individuals in the study,
and Professor Kenneth R. Fox, Department of Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences,
University of Bristol, for his valuable feedback.
International Journal of Workplace
Vol. 1 No. 3, 2008
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
The workplace has been described as an ideal setting for exercise promotion and many
recognise its associated public health potential (Dishman et al., 1998; Ewles and
Simnett, 2003; Taylor, 2005). Since exercising employees are essentially healthier than
sedentary ones (Jex and Heinisch, 1996), it has been posited that employers stand to
beneﬁt from encouraging structured exercise and also less formal physical activity
among their workers (Proper et al., 2002). Exercise is increasingly portrayed to
employers as an effective means of combating workplace stress (Flood and Long, 1996)
and of supporting organisations’ aspirations to corporate social responsibility and
organisational justice (Kivima
ki et al., 2003). Indeed, employers may make
considerable investment to support work-based exercise facilities (Jex, 1991;
Shephard, 1989, 1992). Almost half (48 per cent) of “The 100 Best Companies to
Work For 2006” offered gym access to employees (Sunday Times, 2006), possibly to
emphasise care for employees and/or to heighten their workplace satisfaction.
Physical activity is currently regarded as the parent discipline that houses
structured exercise. Physical activity inﬂuences at least 20 major diseases (Booth et al.,
2000) and also has a positive role in maintaining mental health (Department of Health,
2004). Indices of mental health that are pertinent to physically asymptomatic
individuals include morale and mood (Goetzel et al., 1998; Harden et al., 1999; Lechner,
1997; Peterson and Dunnagan, 1998). Recent work has shown how physical activity
has a positive inﬂuence on coping skills for work behaviour and for tolerating minor
irritations, without becoming stressed (Steptoe et al., 1998). However, other literature
around improved performance or productivity following exercise is equivocal. Proper
et al. (2002) conducted a systematic review on the effectiveness of physical activity
programmes at worksites with respect to productivity but found no evidence of an
effect. Others (e.g. Donoghue, 1977; Hildebrandt et al., 2002; Rosenfeld et al., 1989;
Shephard, 1992) have drawn cautious but more favourable conclusions. Economic
analysts have suggested that 70 per cent of UK adults meeting current
recommendation for exercising 150 þ minutes/week would save the economy £487
million by preventing 2.7 million days of work absence (Deloitte and TARP, 2006).
It is important to distinguish short- from longer-term effects on speciﬁc elements of
workplace performance and to determine how employees can act independently to
beneﬁt that performance on any given work day. One such mechanism could be
through mood enhancement, leading to further developments which make work easier
to complete. Research supports associations of physical activity with acute mood
beneﬁts and enhanced psychological affect (Biddle, 2000; Carless and Faulkner, 2003;
Scully et al., 1998; Yeung, 1996). Following exercise – even individual sessions – a
rapidly evolving pattern of affective improvement seems to arise, the persisting effects
of which are responsible for feelings of lowered tension and exhilaration (Byrne and
Byrne, 1993; Ekkekakis and Petruzzello, 1999; Yeung, 1996). Thus, exercising may be
an effective, short-term strategy for self-regulation of mood (Lane et al., 1998; Yeung,
1996). Physical activity can also contribute to positive physical self-perception,
positively promote mental health (Biddle, 2000; Scully et al., 1998) and protect against
the development of mental health problems (Carless and Faulkner, 2003), all of which
may be seen as factors within the so-called epidemic of workplace stress (Wainwright
and Calnan, 2002).
Since psychosocial features of the workplace contribute to sick leave and
underperformance (Head et al., 2006; Hemp, 2004; Koopman et al., 2001), it is surprising
that potential relationships between on-site exercise, mood and work performance have
not been better explored. In US employees, one estimate was that depression cost
employers $44 billion per year in lost productivity time. This ﬁgure is $31 billion per
year more than that for peers without depression, excluding costs associated with
short- and long-term disability (Stewart et al., 2003).
Emotional affect may predict job performance more strongly than job satisfaction
, 1999) and employers may be more motivated by improvements in workplace
processes, rather than simply focusing on outcomes. For example, organisations could
seek to promote mood improvement for its relationship to a range of behaviours that
inﬂuence the working environment including organisational spontaneity, pro-social
behaviour, managerial fairness, altruism and morale (George and Brief, 1992; Pelled
and Xin, 1999). Indeed, recent research in the UK has identiﬁed that a “4A” model
(access, ability, attitude and application) often combines powerfully to improve
workplace effectiveness (Tamkin et al., 2008). Physical activity can play either a direct
or indirect role in facilitating each of these “A” factors, or their effective combinations,
toward improved workplace economic performance.
Moreover, physical activity promotion is often marketed as a route to cost-saving
and the climate is favourable for increased investment, with recent publications such
as the NICE guidelines for workplace physical activity (National Institute for Health
and Clinical Excellence, 2008), Working for a Healthier Tomorrow (Black, 2008),
Creating a Healthy Workplace Guide (Faculty of Public Health and Faculty of
Occupational Medicine, 2006) and the UK Government’s strategy for physical activity
(HM Government, 2005):
We want to create workplaces where we both protect the health and well-being of employees
and optimise the opportunity to help people improve their own health and well-being. [...]
Success should lead to optimal performance and attendance [and] increased productivity, so
that people are more effective when they are at work” (HM Government, 2005).
Few studies which identify positive links to physical activity are based on research
designs that accommodate usual behaviour, or that reﬂect everyday short-term
responses to exercise that may be conducted in, say, employees’ lunch-breaks. Instead
they are based on imposed behaviours, and often these behaviours have limited
ecological validity since they are hard to sustain beyond the inﬂuence of a research
study. To this end, the ecological validity of any claims for the inﬂuence of such
physical activity on workplace behaviour is inevitably limited (Yeung, 1996). Instead,
studies are needed that are based on self-selected physical activity behaviour.
The purposes of the study were:
to explore employees’ experience of exercising at work, via group discussion, to
help better understand how exercising inﬂuenced the progression of the working
to establish whether self-reported mood at work changed pre- to post-exercise,
and in relation to Exercise Days (ExDs) and No-Exercise Days (NoExDs);
to investigate differences in employees’ self-rated work performance at the end of
their working day on an ExD, compared to a NoExD; and
to determine whether exercise-induced mood improvement predicted
self-reported performance estimates.
The randomised control trial (RCT) is the design of choice for identifying which
interventions work best (Petticrew and Roberts, 2003), yet examples in this area are
rare, perhaps because they require a level of researcher control that is not available in
the workplace. Further, they may also require that employees are allocated to
inactivity, which is unlikely to be ethically approved given current understanding
about the importance of regular daily exercising. Another limitation of the RCT design
is that, although these are powerful designs, they compare the effects of exercise in one
group compared to another, whereas fewer studies have explored the acute effects of
exercising (versus non-exercising) in the same people. It is timely to learn more about
these issues, to capitalise on future potential for ﬁghting the incumbent challenges of
well-being at work and public health – which may link the mental with the physical.
Given the limited use of research designs based on high levels of researcher control,
it is not surprising that even more complex designs are less well represented in the
published literature. For example, there has been relatively little use of a dual
paradigm approach in research issues relating to this study, despite recent growing
interest in its use (Burke Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Cutcliffe and McKenna,
2002; Johnston et al., 1999). Therefore, a mixed methods design was generated, based
on an RCT design with cross-over, supported by focus groups. The design was based
around a concurrent, nested strategy (Creswell, 2003), which involved two study
methods being conducted in the same time period, i.e. summer 2006. Priority was given
to the quantitative data throughout, so that discrepancies in ﬁndings or outcomes
always favoured the empirical evidence.
Qualitative data provided secondary, explanatory data and can best be described as
embedded within the dominant, statistical, approach. Focus groups are particularly
valuable for studying workplace cultures (Kitzinger, 1995) and were employed to
triangulate data (Frey and Fontana, 1993). In the analysis stage, these data were used
to converge and conﬁrm results from the questionnaires and help in their interpretation
(Creswell, 1998, 2003).
Three organisations (two private and one public) in the same city in Southwest
England were invited to participate. These were chosen according to:
a working population large enough to support a sizeable group of regular
work-day exercisers (i.e. . 250 employees);
having on-site exercise facilities; and
adopting a supportive approach towards exercising at work.
Using posters and e-mail (circulated by the list holders within the different
organisations), only volunteer employees who regularly exercised on-site, during
workdays, were recruited.
Method: randomised controlled trial with cross-over
Allocation was based on random numbers with block allocation. Randomisation
allocated the order of completing the questionnaire: starting ExD or NoExD.
Participants returned completed questionnaires at the end of each working day.
Demographic data were provided ﬁrst. Mood was then reported four times using the
validated Physical Activity Affect Scale (PANAS; Lox et al., 2000); pre- and
post-exercise on the ExD, and earlier (T1) and later in the day (T2) on the NoExD. On
the ExD questionnaire, exercise speciﬁcs (duration, mode, intensity and time of day)
were reported. Participants also rated:
the nature of their present job (1 ¼ highly sedentary, 3 ¼ lightly active, 5 ¼
each day’s workload (1 ¼ very heavy, 3 ¼ about average, 5 ¼ very light); and
whether there was anything particularly unusual about each day.
Participants also stated their level of agreement with this statement: “As I am about to
leave, I feel an overall sense of satisfaction and achievement with my day at work”
(5 ¼ strongly agree, 3 ¼ don’t know, 1 ¼ strongly disagree).
Steptoe et al. (1998) noted that the diary approach is a technique of momentary
assessment, providing unique naturalistic information that is not otherwise available.
Therefore, we used existing questionnaires (Lox et al., 2000), which we called mood
diaries (MDs). These were self-completed twice on each day when the study was
conducted. Responses were based on a response scale of 1 ¼ do not feel, 3 ¼ feel
moderately, 5 ¼ feel very strongly.
Self-selected physical activity
Participants chose their own physical activity mode, intensity and duration because
the need to address ecological validity has been highlighted elsewhere (Yeung, 1996), to
widen the generalisability of trial ﬁndings. This is important in the study design as
individuals are more likely to experience the “feelgood effect” after undertaking
exercise modes and intensities that they prefer (Biddle, 2000) rather than those that
may be imposed upon them. One particular advantage of this approach over the typical
randomised controlled trial design is that it offers the prospect of identifying the effects
of behaviours that can be sustained in given workplaces and within current work
patterns. Collectively, this enhances compliance with study demands and provides a
clearer view of the impact of a single bout of exercise in the workplace.
Work performance was recorded at the end of respective days. Ten of the 25-item Work
Limitations Questionnaire items (WLQ; Lerner et al., 2001) were adopted, with
permission, using an adapted response scale: 1 ¼ difficult most/all of the time (51
percent þ ), 4 ¼ neither easy nor difﬁcult and 7 ¼ easy most/all of the time (51
percent þ ). This questionnaire provided perceptions of completing work-related
demands in three domains (original
values shown here): time (
¼ 0:91) and output (
¼ 0:88) demands (Lerner et al., 2001).
WLQ assesses presenteeism, which is working while unwell, and this is analogous to
the notion of engagement, which is a strong theme in contemporary workplace
literature. Five non-validated items were also integrated, rationalized by contemporary
literature (Kessler et al., 2003; Steptoe et al., 1998).
Method: focus groups
Three focus groups, one in each site, were conducted across the worksites. Participants
were recruited using posters displayed in workplace exercise facilities. Details of
contacts and the inclusion criteria were provided on the posters, meaning that
respondents were all appropriate volunteers.
A protocol was developed and reﬁned through piloting and according to published
procedures (Basch, 1987; Kitzinger, 1995; Knodel, 1993; Krueger, 1988; Morgan, 1993).
The ﬁnalised approach successfully explored seven performance-with-exercising
topics, including mood, “spill-over” effects (i.e. outcomes/impacts) and different modes
and intensities of exercise. To ensure the involvement of all participants, nominal
group techniques were integrated, following the successful example of Mackey-Jones
and McKenna (2004). All discussions were audio-recorded using two devices to allow
for over-talking and equipment malfunction.
Each focus group generated four data sets: verbatim transcripts, ﬂip charts and
ﬁeld notes reported at each discussion, prepared by both a researcher and independent
observer. Transcripts were reduced using code-mapping (Knodel, 1993) and rebuilt via
inductive, thematic analysis, guided by the discussion themes. To meet paradigm
conventions, this process was triangulated (Creswell, 1998; Frey and Fontana, 1993) by
two researchers. Emphasis was placed on themes triangulated across data sources
(Miles and Huberman, 1994).
Informed consent and ethics
Completion of MD questionnaires was deemed to indicate giving informed consent. For
the focus groups, all participants agreed to each element of a seven-point informed
consent form. The study was approved by the University of Bristol Human Ethics
Committee (Department of Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences).
Before any analysis was undertaken, the accuracy of data entry was checked. Based on
20,100 entries from 22 (11 per cent) questionnaires, only seven errors were found, which
were then corrected. NoExD responses were taken to indicate a baseline reference for
the level of work performance. Intervention effects were assessed by calculating
change in mood (am minus pm) and performance scores (ExD minus NoExD), then
compared using independent, paired t-tests. To discover whether performance effects
were independent of mood changes, an ANCOVA analysis was undertaken with three
levels of mood differences (mood reduction, no change, mood improvement) used as
covariates. Eta2 determined effect size.
Completed questionnaires were returned by 201 respondents. Compliance with
instructions was high, although slightly more respondents completed the ExD diary
ﬁrst (n ¼ 112, 56 per cent). The gap between returning the NoExD and ExD
questionnaires averaged 3.98 (SD ¼ 2:99) days.
The sample comprised 201 employees, whose mean age was 38.2 (^ 23.8) years. A
majority were female (n ¼ 135, 67 per cent), white (n ¼ 181, 90 per cent) and based at a
pensions company (n ¼ 120, 60 per cent). Others worked either in a computer company
or a university in the same British city in Southwest England. They conﬁrmed holding
mainly, or highly, sedentary occupations (n ¼ 165, 82 per cent), but had been
exercising at least twice a week over the last month (n ¼ 161, 81 per cent). Respondents
were generally healthy, although exhibiting a mixed proﬁle of mental health (Table I).
They already felt competent in their roles at baseline: 75 per cent (n ¼ 151) of
participants scored 4 or higher across single WLQ performance items, indicating that
they found the task neither particularly difﬁcult nor easy, or easier.
Exercise undertaken on the exercise days
Modes of physical activity during the working day were dominated by cardiovascular
exercise (treadmills, classes, ergometers; 72.0 per cent), with 12.0 per cent engaging in
weight training and 16.0 per cent in games or team sports. Eight in ten respondents
reported doing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, with one in ﬁve undertaking
“very hard” exercise. For duration, 75.1 per cent reported doing 45 minutes or less
physical activity during their ExD.
Estimates of the respective day’s workload (NoExD versus ExD) did not differ
(p . 0:05), averaging 2.95 (0.60) versus 2.93 (0.72). Satisfaction with the day’s
achievements (1-5) was higher by þ 0.62 (0.97) on the ExD (p , 0:01).
When mood was ﬁrst measured on each respective day (ExD vs NoExD) only negative
mood differed (p , 0:05), with worse negative mood on the ExD (Figure 1). On ExD,
participants’ mood signiﬁcantly improved (all p , 0:01) across all four of these
dimensions, pre-to-post exercise (Figure 1). In contrast, the only mood change on the
NoExD was for tranquillity, which worsened as the workday progressed (p , 0:01).
Trial effects were based on subscale differences (NoExD minus ExD). Nearly nine in
ten respondents (n ¼ 179, 89 per cent) reported improvements in at least one WLQ,
subscale and over half (n ¼ 115, 57 per cent) did so in all three on the ExD. Frequency
distributions of scores showed that 144 (72 per cent) individuals reported
improvements in managing time demands, 158 (79 per cent) in mental-interpersonal
performance and 148 (74 per cent) in managing output demands. More females (n ¼ 84,
62 per cent) than males (n ¼ 31, 47 per cent) achieved beneﬁts in all three performance
domains (p , 0:05). Where participants showed no performance beneﬁts associated
with exercising, they were characterised by self-reporting being in better spirits
(p , 0:001), having higher levels of energy (p , 0:01), but not mental health status
(p . 0:05) at the start of the study.
Variable Response options n Per cent n Per cent n Per cent
Recent physical health (n ¼ 201) Excellent 18 99595
Very good 46 23 30 15 16 8
Good 25 12 73 36 25 12
Fair 33 16 19 10 14 7
Poor or very poor 634221
Recent general feelings – “spirits” (n ¼ 201) Excellent or very good spirits 30 15 22 11 8 4
Mostly good spirits 101 50 64 32 37 18
Up and down 63 31 45 22 18 9
Mostly low spirits 744232
Recent energy levels – “vitality” (n ¼ 200) Very full of energy/vitality 535300
Fairly energetic most of the time 75 38 49 25 26 13
Energy has varied quite a bit 94 47 63 32 31 16
Generally low in energy/vitality (most of time) 26 13 17 9 26 13
Mental health (n ¼ 200) No anxiety, depression, stress 97 49 62 31 35 18
Anxious, depressed or stressed but not receiving
treatment 68 34 45 23 23 12
Previously professionally treated for anxiety,
depression or stress 29 15 22 11 7 4
Currently anxious, depressed or stressed and
receiving professional treatment 635311
Paired t-tests showed small but consistent performance beneﬁts (mean difference, SD,
range) on ExDs for each work performance area assessed using the WLQ:
managing time demands: þ 2.50, 3.52, 2-14;
managing mental-interpersonal demands: þ 4.32, 5.34, 5-35; and
managing output demands: þ 3.44, 4.45, 3-21.
All p-values were , 0.01 (Figure 2). The largest, single-item beneﬁt (1.25) was for
“Work without stopping to take unscheduled breaks”.
Adding the non-validated performance items, each of the 15 individual indicators
was signiﬁcantly higher on ExDs, compared to NoExDs (all p , 0:01). The mean effect
size was 1.08 and the largest was for “feeling motivated/energised to work” (1.41)
Performance effects were independent of demographic variables (gender, age group,
ethnicity), exercise speciﬁcs (intensity, duration, mode, recent use of facilities), and
self-reported mental health. Neither the order of diary completion nor the unusualness
of the workload on either day inﬂuenced performance outcomes (all p . 0:05).
Physical activity, mood and performance
Mood responses, recoded into either exercise beneﬁt versus no beneﬁt in relation to
performance, are shown in Table III. Although t-tests showed that four outcome
Mood scales: physical
activity patterns of
responses according to
exercise days and
differences were linked to mood response, ANCOVA analysis showed that the only the
differences between negative mood and mental-interpersonal demands (F ¼ 4:46,
p , 0:05) remained after accounting for all mood responses. Regarding effect size, 58
per cent of the variability in performance was explained by knowledge of the grouping
for mood response.
Analysis conﬁrmed 17 themes (Table IV), 13 of which were positive for exercise effects,
including better concentration and problem-solving, a clearer mind and
re-energisation. Exercising also presented a chance to interact with other – often
less well known – colleagues. It offered an active break from the demands of the ofﬁce,
where participants commented on the marked contrast with the sedentary nature of
their work. Females especially valued this as “me time”. Exercise afforded contributors
more perspective about the workday and resilience to stressors. It appeared to reinforce
their short-term sense of personal achievement, by a process of accumulation. Negative
features included the challenges of self-organisation, guilt over being away from the
desk and perceived negative judgement from colleagues. Others missed “just vegging
WLQ subscale means:
exercise days versus
Validated measure Subscale (range) and items NoExD
Time demands (2-14) 8.80 (3.67) 11.30 (2.97) þ 2.50 (3.52) , 0.01
Work without stopping to take unscheduled breaks 4.44 (1.94) 5.70 (1.63) þ 1.25 (1.91) , 0.01
Stick to routine/plan for day 4.36 (2.01) 5.59 (1.58) þ 1.22 (1.96) , 0.01
Mental-interpersonal (5-35) 26.39 (5.99) 30.71 (4.15) þ 4.32 (5.34) , 0.01
Do work carefully, without making mistakes 5.22 (1.52) 6.02 (1.17) þ 0.81 (1.44) , 0.01
Concentrate on my work 4.58 (1.79) 5.79 (1.33) þ 1.21 (1.65) , 0.01
Speak with people 5.38 (1.45) 6.33 (1.10) þ 0.96 (1.39) , 0.01
Control temper 5.83 (1.49) 6.51 (1.00) þ 0.69 (1.46) , 0.01
Help others to work 5.37 (1.39) 6.04 (1.14) þ 0.67 (1.40) , 0.01
Output demands (3-21) 14.16 (4.86) 17.61 (3.14) þ 3.44 (4.45) , 0.01
Handle workload 4.89 (1.69) 5.99 (1.13) þ 1.10 (1.75) , 0.01
Finish work on time 4.51 (2.09) 5.73 (1.47) þ 1.22 (2.11) , 0.01
To do what I’m capable of doing 4.70 (1.82) 5.91 (1.34) þ 1.21 (1.52) , 0.01
N/A Perform at level expected of others doing similar job 5.01 (1.70) 6.01 (1.28) þ 1.00 (1.38) , 0.01
N/A Complete tasks set/set out to do 4.75 (1.87) 5.74 (1.43) þ 0.99 (1.84) , 0.01
N/A Feel motivated/energised to do work 4.33 (1.80) 5.73 (1.45) þ 1.41 (1.56) , 0.01
N/A Deal calmly with day’s workday stressors 4.90 (1.61) 6.17 (1.06) þ 1.27 (1.49) , 0.01
N/A Be generally productive re: role/responsibilities 4.93 (1.63) 6.18 (1.18) þ 1.26 (1.58) , 0.01
Notes: Paired t-tests.
Work Limitations Questionnaire (Lerner et al., 2001)
and item scores under
out” or were annoyed by not taking lunch. Central to the positive outcomes described
by focus group participants were characteristics that we labelled as tolerance and
The study set out to explore how self-directed exercising at work impacts on
self-reported work performance. Outcomes need to be understood in terms of the
particular design strength, which compared individuals on days when they exercised
versus days when they did not. This should be distinguished from those studies that
compare exercisers with non-exercisers. This ﬁnding emphasises that any
performance effects attributable to exercising are absent on other, inactive, days.
There are four main ﬁndings based on the mixed methods approach. First,
self-directed exercise – especially that which ﬁts into a typical one-hour lunch break –
was associated with important mood beneﬁts. Second, performance increments
consistently favoured the exercise condition. Third, exercising was associated with a
wide range of beneﬁcially changed work attitudes and perspectives regarding self,
tasks and colleagues. Finally, our trial data also distinguished that a range of
process-related variables were each connected to overall self-reported performance
improvement but only rarely were these independent of exercise-related mood changes.
The ﬁndings suggest that positive changes in self-reported performance outcomes
of white-collar employees were mostly linked to the mood changes brought about by
exercise. All 15 performance markers and the three performance subscales were
acutely and positively linked to exercising. These ﬁndings are supported by a
Variable and mood impact
demands Time demands
(n ¼ 40; 21 þ 19) 3.20 (5.09) 2.03 (5.12) 1.35 (4.06)
Exercise beneﬁt (n ¼ 154) 4.51 (5.33) 3.73 (4.14) 2.79 (3.31)
p , 0.05
p , 0.05
(n ¼ 166; 94 þ 72) 4.16 (5.39) 3.01 (4.25) 2.28 (3.48)
Exercise beneﬁt (n ¼ 28) 5.29 (5.30) 6.00 (5.13) 3.68 (3.90)
p , 0.01 NS
(n ¼ 146; 131 þ 15) 4.65 (5.42) 3.66 (4.32) 2.86 (3.40)
Exercise beneﬁt (n ¼ 51) 3.16 (4.64) 2.67 (4.75) 1.47 (3.68)
t-test NS NS
p , 0.01
(n ¼ 57; 39 þ 18) 3.70 (4.08) 3.68 (4.15) 2.51 (3.17)
Exercise beneﬁt (n ¼ 141) 4.58 (5.81) 3.37 (4.60) 2.54 (3.69)
t-test NS NS NS
Group size estimate; n ¼ mood deﬁcit on ExD þ no mood change on ExD
(NoExD versus ExD) by
Illustrative raw data quotes Theme
Positive exercise effects
“... makes a problem that you may have had in work, or whatever, beforehand seem less of a problem
when you get back .. .”
“Your mind’s still perhaps ticking over in the background, working on the problem and back, after your
exercise, your body’s nicely tuned up, endorphins kicking in or whatever, and suddenly [clicks ﬁngers]
you’ve also got the solution”
“It helps me to take a broader view to solving a problem”
“You can really concentrate ... exercising really helps for that ... If I’m doing one big, long task all
through the day where I need to concentrate on it, often, come lunchtime, I’m so sick and tired of, of
sitting at my desk and looking at it, it’s really nice to go and have a break and then you come back and
you’re much better for it in the afternoon ...”
Improved concentration/lapse prevention (R)
“Exercising at lunchtime’s good for preventing post-lunch slump”
“It can make things, make you see things perhaps a little bit more clearly ... physical exertion can clear
your head. It ... can have a good effect on your mind ... lets your mind relax”
“I always feel a lot calmer. If I didn’t do it, well I would feel more stressed than if I had ... hadn’t done it
... deﬁnitely relieves stress”
“The busier and more stressful I become, the more I value exercising”
“Taking knocks is easier. Helps me feel strong for the rest of the day. It’s just that I feel that that strength,
um, shows itself and I think it inspires more conﬁdence in me ... you feel ... able to cope with more,
really, what’s going on around you”
“It just gives you a slightly different perspective, so that work isn’t the only thing that matters ...”
“It’s an important part of the day, it’s as important as doing your work. I’m in a completely different
mindset when I get back ... that hour has taken on a different dimension and it changes my day”
“I’m not enjoying work due to organisational issues but getting away from my desk and exercising helps
my frame of mind”
“It is a good punctuation mark in the day ... there’s a kind of, a slightly kind of caged element to work
and that deﬁnitely gives it, it gives you the, a little bit of freedom in the day and, so, if you know you’ll be
stuck at your desk all day, then it’s a, it’s a good escape ...”
“I don’t tend to think about anything else that’s going on while I’m exercising ... I completely switch off
without actually thinking that I’m gonna switch off. You get to the end and you think ‘Aw, I haven’t
thought about X, Y, Z’ ...”
Focus group ﬁndings:
raw data, by thematic
Illustrative raw data quotes Theme
“When I’ve been to the gym, I think, well, that was for you. That’s your bit for you. I’m not helping
anybody else by being there, you know, directly, so that’s my holistic bit”
Me-time (R) (females only)
“You feel like you’re just doing something, well for me, ... I’m not doing it for the family, I’m not doing it
for the students or the staff or whoever”
“I’m just doing it for me and that’s my own time and that’s really special to me ... time for me and I don’t
like people talking to me when I’m working out”
“... if you’re exercising you are achieving a goal and, at work you are achieving a goal, so what you’re
actually doing is, is giving yourself a nice little, um, success treat before you get, get to work. And
because you, sort of, experience success outside of work, you you, you bring that feeling in and you know
you can be successful because you’ve done it before you’ve got to work, so you know you can be
successful at work”
Achievement reinforcement (R)
“It’s a-another kinda point of accomplishment, it’s gone in the piggy-bank for the day somehow”
“I go back to work and I feel full of beans ...” Re-energising (R)
“Exercise wakes me up. When I’m sitting at work, I feel like I’m falling asleep, I’m tired, and if go to the
gym ... doing exercise at lunchtime just gives me a sense of feeling rejuvenated for the afternoon, so I’m
sort of back up there again, rather than ground down”
“It obviously gets your circulation going and I think that can have a good effect on your, on your mind ...
so my body’s done something as well as my mind”
Mind-body connection (R)
“Well, healthy body, healthy mind, isn’t it?”
“I play with my faculty accountant, which can be quite useful, and the computer technician to whom I
can say ‘Just come and ﬁx this’. I meet my research friends from other departments and ... grant
applications have sprung out of games”
New/improved work relationships (T)
“You can interact better with people perhaps afterwards than you could, I dunno, before ... cos you’ve
got that buzz of having done your exercise which lasts for quite a long time”
“To have that sort of social contact with people, you learn more about those people and it sort of adds an
element to your work”
Social networks (T)
“I look forward to it as a social thing, deﬁnitely. Certainly with, with the exercise I do, either running or
the other exercise groups I go to, I’m meeting people I wouldn’t have any reason, almost ... to talk to in
the ofﬁce environment ... or you know, work in different buildings, they come out, train together, we
chat together. We get to know them”
Negative exercise effects
Illustrative raw data quotes Theme
“It’s the stress beforehand and making time for it that I ﬁnd is the hardest bit. And you know, so many
times I don’t make enough time because there’s just so much stress on ...”
In-built stress and guilt
“Sometimes, I feel bad about taking that sort of time out ...There’s a guilt feeling sometimes, isn’t there?
You know, maybe I should be working”
“You can’t do improvisation. I mean, you can’t fall out of bed, you can’t just leave home making sure
you’ve got everything you need, washed and ready to use ... there’s also a little bit of tension wrapped up
with it as well, inasmuch as, you know, having to organise your day to make sure that it will happen ...
But there’s also, you know, maybe a little guilt thing about being away from your desk”
“I crash in the afternoon ... almost shut down whooahh! ... With or without exercise ... often probably
more so with the exercise, cos there’s the physical side but certainly mentally ...”
Unpredictable and transitory fatigue
“And, maybe, it might, might make me less productive, whereas if I’d just sat down, got a sandwich and
carried on at my desk I would be OK”
“It’s just, sometimes I need a break from work and other times, yeah, it’s maybe best not to break it up ...
But, other times, you feel quite tired, all I want to do is sleep and sometimes, you know, I’ve been known
to fall asleep at my computer, even for 10-15 minutes but I just can’t stop it ...”
“I either feel really good, energised, awake etc. or really bad, tired, worn out, etc., afterwards. I don’t
really seem to be able to predict beforehand which way I will go!”
“My colleagues think I’m quite barmy ... and they, they actually openly say that. They all think I’m a bit
Politics of judgement
“The other people round, actually they might take the mickey out of you but they’re actually secretly
envious of you ...”
“There’s a nice feeling of coming in and exercising then ... ’cos you feel this superiority ...”
“What you describe as full of energy after you’ve exercised, I can get after ten minutes’ sleep and I ﬁnd
that’s much more beneﬁcial to me than exercise ...”
Just getting away (exercise is immaterial)
“It’d be interesting to try and separate out whether it’s just stopping work ... or whether it’s sleep or
exercise or reading a book ... ”
“It’s more the escaping for an hour and whether you do it through the gym or running or whatever or
Notes: R ¼ resilience; T ¼ tolerance
literature suggesting that affect positively predicts job performance, over job
, 1998, 1999; Cropanzano et al., 1993). Importantly, the ﬁndings also
related to a sample where mental health concerns were higher than in the general
population (Singleton et al., 2001), with a majority (n ¼ 103, 52 per cent) self-reporting
at least one incidence of experiencing severe stress/anxiety or depression.
There are two main design strengths. The ﬁrst is statistical – the power is roughly
equivalent of a study with over 800 people in a standard RCT. The second reﬂects that
the design was realistic: participants undertook behaviours they would have done
anyway and that they can sustain beyond any inﬂuence of participating in this study.
Differences were generally small but effects were important, given that respondents
already felt competent in their roles, which left relatively little room for improvement.
Further, we considered changes in both mood and self-reported work performance,
which no other studies have done. We found greater fatigue early in the ExD,
suggesting that participants may have actively used exercise to improve their negative
mood, to prepare for the day’s remaining work. This proposition is not only supported
by previous literature (Lane et al., 1998; Yeung, 1996), but also by our focus group
evidence. Collectively, this evidence discounts the argument that positive effects were
due to people exercising on a day when they were in a better mood. Indeed, in what
might seem like something of paradox, focus group outcomes showed that individuals
purposely used exercise as a fatigue-reducing strategy; the paradox is that energy
expenditure increases one’s sense of energy.
Finally, we offer an alternative interpretation of the trial effects. Taking the idealised
view that exercising at work is the healthy norm, by preventing it, or not actively
supporting it, the comparison provided here shows that in the same people the
no-exercise days were consistently associated with lowered self-reported workplace
performance. Focus groups also suggest that, without opportunities for physical activity,
less positive attitudes toward work and colleagues would prevail. This implies that
exercising at work has a key morale-building effect. Importantly, these are acute effects,
which underlines the need for sustained investment in championing exercise at work.
This issue is emphasised, since numerical data revealed that employees’ time
management improved for exercise days, whereas focus groups revealed that employees
sometimes perceived it difﬁcult to organise their working day to include exercise. Recent
data suggests that employees may be increasingly ﬁnding it hard to support exercise
during the working day due to a lengthening of that working day (Worrell and Cooper,
2007), achieved in part by not taking a midday break. Indeed, these same data also
highlight that one in three managers report irritability and concentration problems at
work. Our data highlights that exercising helps to overcome these relatively
commonplace elements of presenteeism. These same issues may also contribute to
lowered estimates of the quality of the work environment for colleagues and team mates.
Despite the positive ﬁndings, there are limitations to the study. On one hand, there
are few objective criteria for assessing both mood and performance, and use of
self-report questionnaires has been widely criticised (Dale et al., 2002; Sallis and
Saelens, 2000). Neither can we conﬁrm that these self-reported workplace behaviours
correspond with objective assessments; indeed, existing literature questions this idea
(Taris, 2006). However, the challenge of identifying performance in white-collar work
remains a major challenge since it is often difﬁcult to compare inputs with outcomes as
in productivity studies. Other potential moderators, such as ﬁtness, health, exercise
speciﬁcs and eating behaviour, were only crudely self-reported. However, we can place
more conﬁdence in the reports of exercise behaviour since these reﬂect behaviour
located within speciﬁc time periods, the mode is obvious, and the duration of the
effort-based components are relatively predetermined within a typical lunch break. We
also acknowledge that while we have established ecologically valid outcomes by
focusing on self-determined exercise behaviour, this does little to inform researchers or
practitioners about the active ingredients of the exercise prescription that most
contribute to improved work performance.
Neither is it possible to generalise about what constitutes productivity; this is likely
to differ according to concerns for engagement with the public, duration of typical
tasks, aspirations for success, size of the market sector and the aims of different
workplace sectors (Tamkin et al., 2008). On the other hand, the study design was
methodologically rigorous and was based on an ethos of pragmatic thinking, which
was centred in exploring what the effects were of exercise that employees would do. In
this way the ﬁndings also have much to say about the value, in relation to workplace
performance, of the exercise prescription issues that engage exercise professionals.
More speciﬁcally, the ﬁndings suggest that these effects are more attributable to
relative, rather than absolute, indicators of exercise intensity as well as to the
amenability of the chosen exercise format to ﬁt into a normal midday break.
Another drawback was the potential for distortion within the crossover design, due
to carry-over, i.e. residual effects from any preceding physical activity. In clinical drug
trials, a wash-out period is usually incorporated between adjacent treatment periods to
eliminate these effects, which was impossible to impose here. This may have been
counterbalanced by participants’ tendency to leave more than one day between
completing questionnaires which, likewise, conferred greater ecological validity.
We were also unable to blind participants to exercising, or determine whether
exercise was being strictly evaluated against non-exercise conditions. Future studies
should appraise how the time spent on exercising on one day is spent on the
non-exercise days. Certainly, our only neutral focus group theme exempliﬁed that other
workday activities might engender mood-performance beneﬁts. Moreover, in terms of
return on investment, one might question whether other short-term mood improvement
strategies could exert as big an effect size on performance estimates or be associated
with so many other health-related beneﬁts.
Finally, our focus on habitual exercisers did not follow current research agendas
around lifestyle physical activity (Department of Health, 2004). It would be interesting
to discover whether similar trends exist for less active employees and workers who
actively commute, or otherwise incorporate activity into their workday (e.g. a
lunchtime walk), rather than through structured exercise. Researching facility-based
exercise also limited the capacity to explore elements of the dose-response relationship
between exercise and performance. This probably reﬂects a lack of variability in what
our participants could ﬁt into the breaks they took from work to exercise. However, the
study offers a fascinating range of possibilities for exploring these issues of frequency,
type, duration and intensity and how they link to performance. There is scope, too, to
broaden this dual paradigm approach by examining potential intra-employee
moderators such as personality traits (Jex, 1991), perceived decision latitude within the
workplace (Head et al., 2006) and physical activity and mental well-being corporate
typologies (Thøgersen-Ntoumani and Fox, 2005).
From these relatively limited data, it is unlikely that employers are going to be
queuing to provide gyms. This notwithstanding, the ﬁndings provide compelling,
positive evidence of acute effects that are part of a growing body of literature pointing
in similar directions. The direction and scale of these effects are impressive, given that
estimated high baseline performance;
were experienced exercisers; and
chose their own exercise involvement.
Overall consistency of the ﬁndings from both questionnaires and focus groups lends
weight to the understanding that work-based exercising has an acute effect on helping
employees to become more tolerant colleagues and more resilient workers.
Evidence was presented from a randomised controlled trial with cross-over, supported
by focus groups. The ﬁndings highlight that, compared to days when no exercise was
undertaken during the working day, exercising improved mood and performance,
leading to better concentration, work-based relationships and heightened resilience to
stress. The small, but consistently positive, self-reported performance effects underline
the value of providing work-based physical activity opportunities for white-collar
employees holding sedentary posts, including those with high baseline estimates of
their performance or those suffering from sub-optimal mental health. Implications for
competitive advantage and incentive for increasing active breaks from work are
evident, with mutual, multi-faceted beneﬁt to employers and staff. Employers should
proactively seek to foster a supportive environment, particularly by challenging
exercisers’ concerns over time management and negative inter-employee politics. The
statistical power of these ﬁndings is ampliﬁed within the cross-over design.
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