Thrive Global: How can moving more help improve our work performance?

Michelle Segar: Regular exercise, even just physical movement, can improve work performance in many ways. Being active improves executive function and boosts energy, which are key resources for optimal working. Movement also improves mood, helping people feel less stressed and have more positive emotions. Research shows that positive emotions enhance creativity and flexible thinking, which are key ingredients for innovation. So there are a myriad of ways that exercising boosts work performance.

Thrive Global: What are some of the common barriers to moving more, and what recommendations do you have to get over them?

MS: In my 25 years of academic research and coaching, I’ve found that there are three specific roadblocks that are most likely to prevent people from being consistent with movement.

First, having perfectionistic, outdated definitions of “what counts” and is worth doing when it comes to moving. Despite the fact that we now have more inclusive, science-based definitions about how we can exercise, most people’s beliefs reflect the “no pain, no gain” philosophy. The problem is when people believe that exercise is only worth doing if it meets specific standards of duration, intensity, and activity type — they have rigid, fixed definitions and goals.

Yet for most people, our schedules and needs are constantly changing. In general, research suggests that being more flexible with strategies for healthy lifestyles better supports persistence and ultimately behavioral sustainability, along with the host of benefits those bring. The solution is quite easy. Know that any and all movement is worth doing and will benefit our mood and energy level immediately. Count every opportunity to move as valid and choose to take it.

Second, picking physical activities that you think will give you the best workout, even despite hating them or finding them punishing. One of the strongest predictors of sustainable exercise motivation and behavior change is enjoying or having positive experiences from moving. Some people—I’d say the minority—seem to be able to power through their ambivalence or disdain of exercising. But most of us are too depleted from living the rest of our lives to force ourselves to exercise in ways that feel draining instead of renewing. If you care about the benefits of consistent movement, start moving in ways that you enjoy.

Finally, there’s the idea of exercising to achieve future goals, or logical goals like weight loss and better health. We’ve been socialized to consider exercise generally as a vehicle for future goals like those. Yet decision-making research suggests humans are less motivated by these types of benefits than ones that come immediately, like improved mood. You can overcome this by simply deciding that you want to experience the immediate rewards of moving, and then starting to notice how you feel during and afterward. If you’re choosing to move in ways that re-energize you, you’ll start to notice that you not only feel better but are more successful in the roles you care most about.

TG: What does research say about how much exercise we need to get per day or per week to reap the benefits?

MS: The answer is it depends. Our energy is boosted from only minutes of moving. Because of the detriments of perfectionist goals when it comes to exercising, I advise people to stop focusing on this question. Most people are only going to sustain what feels good and what they can actually fit in without too much stress. It’s time for “exercise kindergarten” where people who are inactive, which is the vast majority of the population, are given permission to play with movement to discover what feels good, what fits in, and how to be flexible.

TG: There are seemingly endless benefits to getting regular exercise and incorporating more movement into your day, but what are the main ones, both mentally and physically, according to the research?

MS: More energy, lifted mood, less stress and boosted executive functioning. All of these are resources that help us live better. I believe these are more compelling than the myriad of physical health benefits, but I’ll list some: improved cardiovascular functioning, reduced risk of Alzheimer’s, reduced risk of many cancers, and more.

TG: One thing we talk a lot about at Thrive Global is the idea of microsteps, small science-based ways to improve your life, which ultimately lead to bigger change. So what microsteps would you recommend to help people start moving more regularly?

MS: A feather integrates more easily into and stays within a tornado than a cow, and our lives are like whirling tornados. So start small by adding minutes of movement. For example, park a little farther away anywhere you go during your day, or walk to the end of the block right when you get home or after dinner. Noticing how you feel when and after you move is key for creating the positive association with movement. But just as important is noticing how you function afterward. Do you feel better about yourself? Do you feel more enthusiastic at work or when parenting?

Microsteps are just the first part, though. How people navigate their microsteps in their daily lives is truly where the rubber hits the road. Challenges impact all of our plans or goals, whether they are huge or micro. So we have to start to think in more dynamic ways and give ourselves permission to be flexible and adopt and improvise in the moment. Microsteps are the “how” and the smartest way to start and advance. But remember that without a truly compelling “why” you’re moving, you won’t maintain your motivation to keep it up over time.