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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

May 28, 2021


Are you less interested in exercise after a hard day at work even though you know it will make you feel better? You’re not alone. And research has discovered why.


Hello and welcome to episode 116 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. In this episode we’re looking at why a stressful day at work makes us even less likely to exercise, despite that being exactly what we need. 

If you have a stressful job chances are you already know that exercise will help. Exercise is a great antidote for stress. Exercise effectively burns through stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. In addition, exercise can stimulate production of endorphins which boost our mood and also reduce pain. 

But perhaps you have also had this experience: It has been a hard day at work. You know that a quick visit to the gym or walk will make you feel better. But you’re even less motivated than usual to exercise. You know exercise will help you to feel better, but still you don’t do it.

Recent research suggests that the design of our job can have an impact not just on our stress levels at work, but also on the actions we take outside of work to reduce stress. It turns out that the more demanding our day at work, the less likely we are to exercise.

The research involved setting up a call-centre environment where the demands of the job and level of individual control could be varied. The researchers initially set up two versions of a call-centre job - one with greater demands and one with lesser demands placed on the individual. After their shift, participants were then invited to exercise. Those with the more demanding versions of the job undertook less exercise. Having just experienced a demanding job reduced the exercise they would have otherwise have undertaken.

Researchers then repeated the experiment, but this time some participants were allowed greater freedom and control over the job. They found initial evidence that greater autonomy and freedom positively impacted the individual’s sense of control outside of the job, which in turn could influence the amount of exercise they chose to undertake.

So it appears that job characteristics such as demands and autonomy impact exercise. Our work spills over into the rest of our life.

However, there are things we can do to help change this pattern.

  1. Exercise at the start of the day - this will help to buffer you against stress and also increase sense of control

  2. Make exercise a habit not a choice - remove obstacles to exercise by laying out your gym clothes the night before

  3. Focus on how you will feel at the end - starting exercise can be painful, but you almost always feel great after a workout - focus on that feeling to get you over the initial hump

  4. Vary the demand level in your job and build in breaks - chronic stress is terrible for us, so mix up your day to include breaks and recovery time

So this week, get moving even when you don’t feel like it. Focus on the benefits and remove the obstacles. Have a great week.



Abdel Hadi, S., Mojzisch, A., Parker, S. L., & Häusser, J. A. (2021). Experimental evidence for the effects of job demands and job control on physical activity after work. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 27(1), 125–141.