How Regular Exercise Helps You Balance Work and Family

by Russell Clayton

Quick Takes

  • Exercise regularly to reduce stress and be more productive
  • Use physical activity to increase your self-efficacy
  • Reserve time before or after work to go for a bike ride or swim laps
  • Take short breaks in your workday for a walk, run, or workout

If you have been feeling torn between exercising more and being a better working parent or spouse, then this should come as great news: You can do both. Carving out regular time in your schedule for physical activity can mean success, happiness, and less stress in your future.

Consider this example: Matthew Beason is a well-respected executive at a nonprofit with a multibillion-dollar endowment. On top of continual domestic travel, countless dinners with donors, and constant planning meetings, Matthew is also a married father of four. While his work schedule sometimes leaves him exhausted, Matthew consistently attends school and athletic events and is, while at home, fully there for his family.

Likewise, Luke McKelvy, owner of McKelvy Wealth Management, has a busy schedule of meeting with current and prospective clients and setting up his new business. Luke is the father of two children, twin boys under the age of two. Like Matthew, he manages to square the priority he places on his family’s happiness with the demands of work he considers important.

Matthew and Luke have pulled off the neat trick of successfully integrating work and life mainly through a skillful alignment of their priorities. But something else about them, it turns out, has probably helped: their adherence to regular exercise. Research by my colleagues and I demonstrates a clear relationship between physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and purposive—to use Carl J. Caspersen and colleagues’ seminal definition of exercise—and one’s ability to manage the intersection between work and home.1

My colleagues and I surveyed a population of working adults to gather input regarding both their exercise habits and their experience of resolving work and home demands. Briefly, those respondents who reported regular exercise were less likely to experience conflict between their work and home roles.

That’s a somewhat counterintuitive finding. An exercise regimen, after all, draws on scarce time—and often disappears from professionals’ lives for exactly that reason. How could adding it to an already busy schedule help resolve work-home trade-offs?

The pathways became evident in our research. First, and least surprisingly, exercise reduces stress, and lower stress makes the time spent in either realm more productive and enjoyable. In Luke’s words, “Exercise allows me to leave my cares behind and provides me with time to think.” A reduction in stress is tantamount to an expansion of time.

Second, we found that exercise helps work-home integration via increased self-efficacy. The term 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. According to psychologist Albert Bandura, who first proposed the concept, people with high self-efficacy are less likely to avoid difficult tasks or situations, and more likely to see them as challenges to be mastered. Our research suggests that people who exercise regularly enjoy greater self-efficacy, and it carries over into their work and home roles. The theory resonates with Matthew. As he puts it, “An hour of exercise creates a feeling that lasts well beyond that hour spent at the gym.” Or take it from Luke, who competes in triathlons: “When I accomplish something during an exercise training session, I feel more confident in my professional and personal life.”

So, see this as another reason to stick to that New Year’s resolution to exercise. Or if that wasn’t already your intention, consider what form of regular exercise would work best for you. Some people make it their habit to exercise prior to starting the workday because it’s so easy to find reasons not to exercise later in the day. (I am personally fond of high-intensity interval training [HIIT], in part because of its short-duration workouts. I combine a few HIIT sessions with a couple of runs per week.) Others benefit from a break in the workday, especially when they can take advantage of on-site workout facilities or walk their dog around the neighborhood. Matthew’s exercise routine entails heading out on his lunch break to run up and down the steps at a local football stadium. According to him, breaking up the workday with exercise “makes my problems get smaller” in the afternoon. Still others like the “wind-down time” of exercising after work. Luke tends to go for a bike ride or swim laps in the pool of his local fitness center after leaving the office. Whatever time and setting you prefer—taking long walks, joining a dance or Pilates class—the key is to engage in a level of exercise that dissipates stress and adds to your sense of what you are capable of.

Managers and HR professionals should take note, as well. It’s important to organizational performance that people find ways to successfully integrate work and home demands. This research suggests that companies will benefit from removing constraints on employee exercise. By embracing more flexible working hours, for example, workplaces and supervisors can make it easier for people to find time for physical activity. More proactively, employers can encourage new habits like walking meetings or using the stairs as StairMasters. They might even offer “booster breaks” for employees to spend 10–15 minutes participating in stretching, breathing, and light aerobic routines.

Perhaps more than anything, employers can help by getting the word out that exercise isn’t a selfish indulgence that inevitably requires some sacrifice on either the work or home front. What we found was overwhelming support for a positive relationship between regular exercise and satisfying management of the work-home interface. It isn’t only that exercise supports better physical health. Through its direct impact on increased self-efficacy and reduced psychological strain, exercise leads to better integration of professional and personal lives.

Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, January 3, 2014 (product #H00M30).

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