How can fitness professionals help desk jockeys boost their daily activity levels? Perhaps it’s time to change the message.

Instead of focusing on the risks of inactivity—which hasn’t made much headway—maybe we should appeal to career-oriented sensibilities and explain how even 5 minutes of movement can make people more successful at their jobs.

This article reviews studies that correlate workplace exercise with job satisfaction, productivity and overall success. It also suggests simple, time-efficient workouts your clients can do at the office.

Why It’s Good to Work Out at Work

Regular exercise is essential for physical health, but knowing this may not be enough motivation to get office workers moving. Fortunately, plenty of research shows that fitting in even a short walk during the workday can lead to a happier, more productive work environment.

Energy Booster

Energy drink companies have created a significant business from office workers who need a late-afternoon pick-me-up. However, studies show that exercise—even a short walk around the building—can be a far better and healthier way to pump up end-of-day energy levels. For example, researchers from the University of Georgia studied a group of sedentary young adults who reported feeling low energy and fatigue. They were assigned to do low- or moderate-intensity exercise three times per week for 6 weeks. At study completion, they reported a 20% increase in energy levels and a 65% decrease in feelings of fatigue (Puetz, Flowers
O’Connor 2008).

Job Performance

Some people fear that exercising during the day will make it harder to get their work done. Researchers from the University of Bristol and Leeds Metropolitan University, both in England, found otherwise. They recruited 201 people from three workplaces whose jobs required little physical activity (locations were chosen because they offered worksite exercise access). Volunteers completed surveys on exercise days and nonexercise days. On exercise days, they reported improvements in mood and performance. Interestingly, performance gains happened regardless of exercise intensity and workload (Coulson, McKenna
Field 2008).

Workplace Happiness

In a study of Israeli workers, researchers looked at physical activity levels and feelings of depression and job burnout over 9 years. They found that job burnout and depression were highest among those who did not exercise. Conversely, subjects who achieved the highest levels of physical activity reported the lowest incidences of depression and burnout (Toker
Biron 2012).

Better Brain Power

Staring at a computer for hours on end is not the best way to achieve a critical mental breakthrough­­—the longer you stare, the further away the solution seems to get. Research finds that physical activity is a viable alternative for shaking loose those stubborn ideas.

In a recent study, researchers wanted to learn about the immediate benefits of exercise on cognitive ability (Hogan, Mata
Carstensen 2013). They recruited 144 people aged 19–93 who either did 15 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or joined the nonexercise control group (which spent 15 minutes rating neutral images). The volunteers completed memory and cognition tests before and after their respective tasks. Overall, everyone in the exercise group experienced significantly more improvements in mental ability than the control group did, the authors stated.

Creative Stimulation

The benefits of walking are many—from improved heart health to reduced risk of death (Harvard Health 2009). Researchers from Stanford University have also learned that lacing up for a stroll can help with that big presentation (Oppezzo
Schwartz 2014). In this study, subjects completed the “Guilford’s alternate uses (GAU) test of creative divergent thinking” while seated and then again while walking on a treadmill or outdoors.

“Walking had a large effect on creativity,” the authors found. “Most of the participants benefited from walking compared with sitting, and the average increase in creative output was around 60%.” The creative boost was more significant if the walking took place outdoors. It was after returning to their seats that participants experienced the boost.

“Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity,” the authors explained.

Better Paycheck

Everyone wants to earn more money. According to Vasilios Kosteas, PhD, chair of the economics department at Cleveland State University, in Ohio, pounding out some push-ups won’t just result in beefier muscles—it could also earn you a healthier paycheck. To determine this, he compared the exercise habits of similar people in similar occupations.

“I find that engaging in regular exercise yields a 6% to 10% wage increase,” explained the professor. He noted that moderate exercise contributed to greater earnings, but those who exercised the most tended to make the most (Kosteas 2012).

Workplace Workouts

As each of these studies suggest, it doesn’t take a lot of exercise to see improvements in cognition, creativity and productivity. Here are a few simple workouts that can last anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes and don’t require anything beyond what’s available in the average office.

Full-Body Strength

Perform anywhere from 5 (beginner) to 15 (experienced) repetitions of these exercises in a circuit-style format for 5–30 minutes, resting as necessary.

Chair squats.

Start seated in a chair, then stand up.


Do squats without the chair.

Desk push-ups.

Place both hands on the desk shoulder-width apart, lower the body until the elbows reach 90 degrees, and press back to the start position.


Perform push-ups on the floor, either on the toes or knees or with the feet elevated on a chair.

Hip bridges.

Lie on the floor face up, knees bent to 45 degrees and feet flat on the ground. Drive the hips toward the ceiling until there is a straight line from the knees to the shoulders.


Place both feet on a chair and perform the exercise.

Elbow plank.

Positioning yourself face down with the elbows underneath the shoulders (like the Sphinx), rest on the knees (novice) or toes (experienced) and keep the trunk muscles tight. Hold for 10–30 seconds.


From elbow plank, lift one leg at time, alternating between legs.


Sit in the chair, place the hands on the side of the chair and press down until the hips are elevated.


Place the body in front of the chair to increase range of motion.

Quickie Tabata™-Style Workout

Set the clock for 4 minutes and perform each of the following exercises in a circuit-style format for 20 seconds, following each move with a 10-second rest until time runs out. Longer rest times can be used if needed. Each exercise can be upgraded by moving at a faster pace.

High-knee march.

March in place, bringing the knees to hip height.

Plank knee tuck.

Starting in a push-up position, bring one knee to either the same-side elbow or the opposite-side elbow. Repeat with the other leg.

Side-step toe touch.

Step out to the right side and reach down to touch the right foot with the left hand. Be sure to bend at the knee and hip. Repeat with the other leg. If mobility is an issue, reach for the knee instead of the foot.

Hamstring curl.

In a standing position, bend the knee and bring the heel toward the same-side glute. Return the foot to the floor and repeat with the other leg.

The 1-Minute Blitz

Sometimes even a 5-minute workout segment can be a challenge to complete. A 1-minute blitz can offer the most seriously time-strapped clients an opportunity for workday movement.

If clients perform the blitz every hour on the hour, they will accrue 8 minutes of movement during the day. And research shows that exercise doesn’t have to happen all at once to be beneficial.

Here’s how it works: Set the alarm to sound at the top of every hour and perform an exercise for a total of 1 minute, resting partway through if necessary. The exercise can remain the same throughout the day or be different for each blitz.

Activity and Success: A Win-Win

It’s a good idea to tell office-based clients how exercise can directly improve work performance. Showing them simple workplace workouts might be just what they need to integrate movement into their daily lives.

Sitting at Work: Though People Know It’s bad, They Won’t Change Their Ways

A 2013-2014 Gallup poll discovered that the average worker in the U.S. spends about 47 hours on the job per week. Of those holding salaried positions, 25% report working at least 60 hours per week (Saad 2014). In 2015, On Your Feet Britain—a campaign urging office workers to get up from their desks more—released a survey that found significant inactivity among its 2,000 respondents:

  • 45% of women and 37% of men spent 30 or fewer minutes on their feet during work hours.
  • The majority of respondents ate lunch at their desk.
  • Nearly 80% believed they sat too much.
  • lmost two-thirds worried that inactivity was threatening their health (British HeartFoundation 2015).

Over the past several years, an avalanche of research has cited the many dangers of sitting too much; they include increased risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, some form of cancers, weight gain and even premature death (Chau et al. 2012; Dunstan, Thorp & Healy 2011; van der Ploeg et al. 2012). Some reports suggest people who sit a lot but also work out are not exempt from such health problems (Biswas et al. 2015). Standing at work doesn’t seem to do much to solve the problem, either (Chaput et al. 2015).

To confound the issue, other studies have found little—if any—association between being still and health hazards. These studies theorize that seated desk work has been unfairly maligned, and instead they blame lack of movement (Pulsford et al. 2015; van Uffelin et al. 2010).

Though many of the reports present conflicting evidence, they all agree that regular physical activity is necessary for a healthy life. Yet even with this message getting wide-spread coverage in the mass media, many people remain highly inactive throughout the day (Knox, Musson & Adams 2015). Even the fear of developing an inactivity-related disease doesn’t necessarily result in long-term behavior change (Tannenbaum et al. 2015).


Biswas, A., et al. 2015. Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality, and hospitalization in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine, 162 (2), 123-32.
British Heart Foundation. 2015. Office workers fear sitting too long could be impacting their health. Accessed Nov. 24, 2015.
Chaput, J., et al. 2015. Workplace standing time and the incidence of obesity and type 2 diabetes: A longitudinal study in adults. BMC Public Health, 15, 111.
Chau, J.Y., et al. 2012. Cross-sectional associations between occupational and leisure-time sitting, physical activity and obesity in working adults. Preventive Medicine, 54 (3-4), 195-200.
Coulson, J.C., McKenna, J., & Field, M. 2008. Exercising at work and self-reported work performance. International Journal of Workplace Health Management, 1 (3), 176-97.
Dunstan, D.W., Thorp, A.A., & Healy, G.N. 2011. Prolonged sitting: Is it a distinct coronary heart disease risk factor? Current Opinion in Cardiology, 26 (5), 412-19.
Harvard Health Publications. 2009. Walking: Your steps to health. Harvard Men’s Health Watch. Accessed Nov. 23, 2015.
Hogan, C.L., Mata, J., & Carstensen, L.L. 2013. Exercise holds immediate benefits for affect and cognition in younger and older adults. Psychology and Aging, 28 (2), 587-94.
Kosteas, V. 2012. The effect of exercise on earnings: Evidence from the NLSY. Journal of Labor Research, 33 (2), 225-50.
Knox, E., Musson, H., & Adams, E.J. 2015. Knowledge of physical activity recommendations in adults employed in England: Associations with individual and workplace-related predictors. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 12, 69.
Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D.L. 2014. Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40 (4), 1142-52.
Puetz, T., Flowers, S.S., & O’Connor, P.J. 2008. Randomized controlled trial of the effect of aerobic exercise training on feelings of energy and fatigue in sedentary young adults with persistent fatigue. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 77 (3), 167-74.
Pulsford, R.M., et al. 2015. Associations of sitting behaviours with all-cause mortality over a 16-year follow-up: The Whitehall II study. International Journal of Epidemiology. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyv191.
Saad, L. 2014. The “40-hour” workweek is actually longer–by seven hours. Accessed Nov. 23, 2015.
Tannenbaum, M.B., et al. 2015. Appealing to fear: A meta analysis of fear appeal effectiveness and theories. Psychological Bulletin, 141 (6), 1178-1204.
Toker, S., & Biron, M. 2012. Job burnout and depression: Unraveling their temporal relationship and considering the role of physical activity. Journal of Applied Physiology, 97 (3), 699-710.
Van der Ploeg, H., et al. 2012. Sitting time and all-cause mortality risk in 222,497 Australian adults. Archives of Internal Medicine, 172 (6), 494-500.
Van Uffelin, J., et al. 2010. Occupational sitting and health risks: A systematic review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 39 (4), 379-88.

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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