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Fighting Words

Employees Should Get Paid to Exercise Together

Group workouts are good for a company’s bottom line.

Dhani Oks

As most runners know, endorphins are a major factor in the enjoyment of running; they are natural painkillers that we all produce when doing intense physical activities for an extended amount of time. But there is another hormone that is seldom talked about when discussing the positive effects of exercise.

Oxytocin is a hormone produced during moments of deep bonding between people. Mothers caring for their children, friends hugging when they greet each other, teammates sharing a drink after winning the big game, and having sex are all things that spark production of the hormone. Oxytocin is the underlying chemical that produces enjoyment and meaning in many of our most cherished activities.

"In our blood and in the brain, oxytocin appears to be the chemical elixir that creates bonds of trust not just in our intimate relationships but also in our business dealings, in politics and in society at large," neuroeconomics expert Paul Zak wrote in an essay in the Wall Street Journal. (Neuroeconomics is the study of how our brains affect our work.) "When someone's level of oxytocin goes up, he or she responds more generously and caringly, even with complete strangers," he writes. Zak goes on to call oxytocin the "trust" molecule.

Zak recommends exercising with friends as a way to boost levels of this hormone. Exercise also naturally promotes other Oxytocin-boosting behaviors, like complementing, hugging, high-fiving, and post-workout socializing.

Besides, working out alone is tough. Enlisting the help of others to sweat alongside you is a much more effective way to produce long-lasting results. The rise of social fitness trends like CrossFit and the urban Run Crew culture suggests that working out with others produces benefits far greater than calories burned. Sharing intense experiences makes them more tolerable—you know, misery loves company, etc. Anyone who's ever completed a solo long run can attest to how grueling it can be. But running with others over the same distance can turn the experience from painful to enjoyable. The results of a study published in the Royal Society's Biology Letters indicates that "compared to training alone, group training significantly increases pain threshold." So not only do we bond over group exercise, but we also perform better because we feel less pain in the process. Which of course leads to more high-fives.

Devotees of these socially oriented sweat sessions generally see their workouts as a way to connect with others through more positive lifestyle choices. Fitness is quickly gaining on other traditional forms of "meaning-generating" experiences that are more traditionally seen in religious get-togethers. Although the manner of fitness is important (yoga, weight training, running etc) it's really the opportunity to bond and support each other that underlies the power of these movements.

Ryan Holmes is the founder and CEO of Hootsuite, a Canadian company that is presently valued at over $1 billion. In a 2015 piece he wrote for Business Insider, Holmes makes the case that it's time "employees should be paid to exercise at work." His claim was not a fluffy one, he had research to back it up.

In 2011, The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine published a study that concluded a "reduction in work hours may be used for health promotion activities with sustained or improved production levels." The evidence points to giving employees opportunities to workout not only as a matter of providing workplace health initiatives, but as an investment into overall productivity.

Holmes writes, "it's worth taking a look at exercise in the one place where nearly all of us will spend a good chunk of our lives: the workplace." He goes on to say, "there's a saying that couples who sweat together stay together. I think it's just as true that companies that sweat together stay together. Over the years, the culture of fitness in our office has grown with the enthusiasm of new employees and taken on a life of its own."

Not only are workers more productive, which ultimately leads to more success and results for their employer, but they are also nicer. In 2005, research from the UK suggested that workers were much more cooperative with their fellow employees after a workout.

The author of that study, Jim McKenna, a professor of physical activity and health at Leeds Metropolitan University, later told MSNBC that "after exercise, people adopted a more tolerant attitude to themselves and to their work," He went on to say the participants in his study reported being "more tolerant of their own shortcomings and to those of others."

And to really drive the point home, a recent article for New York Magazine by Melissa Dahl details research that claims that 30 to 40 minutes of vigorous increasing blood flow to a part of the brain is associated with "clear thinking:" planning ahead, focus and concentration, goal-setting, time management."

Bonding is necessary in any work environment. It builds trust among co-workers and the ability to deal with shared challenges together. The traditional way we'd bond with co-workers would be over drinks after a workday or a smoke break. But as we become more aware of the effects of diet, exercise and lifestyle on our health, stress levels, and performance there has been a shift towards more effective ways to connect with coworkers and friends in more healthy ways.

When you look at the evidence, it's pretty clear sweating together makes you nicer and smarter and leads to great relationships. So what's the best kind of sweat to kick-start a health culture at work?

Over my years of experience coaching, owning a gym and being involved in many styles of fitness, I've found that running is the ultimate way to get people moving, bonding and sticking with it over time.

Running has the lowest barrier to entry of any fitness pursuit—no membership or equipment is required. Anyone can run, anywhere and anytime of the year. A simple 3 or 5k run is easy to accomplish before, after or during a workday.

Running is also scalable and adaptable to any fitness level, allowing you to start easy at a short distance and ramp up over time. And when it comes to a workplace, school or organizational setting, there's lots of opportunity to get a few people together during lunch to go for a quick pick me up run.

If you or someone you know at work is a runner or wants to be, I suggest starting your own run club. You can begin with as little as one run a week of a mile or two. Having a shared goal will keep everyone accountable while maximizing the fun and meaning of your running. There are lots of 5k and 10k races year-round in most cities. Registering for a race that is 8 to 16 weeks out will help keep you focused and supporting each other.

Ask your boss for some budget to make t-shirts with "Company X Running Club" on the front. There is no better way to wear your personal and company values than to run together with them on your chest. The team bonding effect becomes exponentially powerful.

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