skip to main content
Business Journal
Exercise, Sleep, and Physical Well-Being
Business Journal

Exercise, Sleep, and Physical Well-Being

by Tom Rath and Jim Harter

Even using conservative estimates, the majority of us do not get enough exercise. Just 38% of people we studied report that they have exercised or had a lot of physical activity in the past day. Among 400,000 Americans we surveyed in more depth, only 27% get the recommended 30 minutes or more of exercise five days per week.

People who exercise at least two days a week are happier and have significantly less stress. In addition, these benefits increase with more frequent exercise. We found that each additional day of exercise in a given week -- at least up to six days when people reach a point of diminishing returns -- continues to boost energy levels.

It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to combat fatigue is by exercising.

A recent experiment revealed that just 20 minutes of exercise could improve our mood for several hours after we finish working out. Researchers monitored participants who rode a bike at moderate intensity and another group who did not exercise. Those who exercised for just 20 minutes had a significant improvement in their mood after 2, 4, 8, and 12 hours when compared to those who did not exercise.

As a Mayo Clinic publication stated: "A lack of energy often results from inactivity, not age." On days when you don't have 20 or 30 minutes to exercise, a mere 11 minutes of lifting weights has been shown to increase metabolic rate, which helps you burn more fat throughout the day. Any exercise is better than an entire day with no vigorous activity.

The best time to exercise

It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to combat fatigue is by exercising. We might use being too tired as an excuse to avoid working out, but that's the worst time to skip exercise. A comprehensive analysis of more than 70 trials found that exercising is much more effective at eliminating fatigue than prescription drugs used for this purpose. This study also found that nearly everyone, from healthy adults to cancer patients and those with chronic disease conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, benefits from exercise.

One of the primary reasons people exercise regularly is because it makes them feel better about themselves and their appearance, and it boosts their confidence. If you exercise today, you are more than twice as likely to feel physically attractive tomorrow. Feeling attractive is not just important for our self-confidence. Researchers at Columbia University found that our psychological perceptions of our body image could be as important as objective measures like body mass index (BMI).

There is no age limit to having good exercise habits or thriving Physical Well-Being. Dave, who is 88, responded with an exuberant "no" when we asked him if he had any health problems that prevent him from doing things other people his age can normally do. Dave reports that he has no daily pain. Perhaps it's because he gets up at 6:00 every morning, takes a long walk, does his own yard work and home repairs, and regularly fixes things for his children. As Dave put it, "I keep busy. And I read. I have a computer. I use it, because if you don't use all of your organs in your body, including your brain, you won't feel good."

While Dave is retired and doesn't travel as much as he used to, he still goes to annual golf outings with his friends and plays several rounds a year. Each day, he does 30 minutes of vigorous exercise in addition to his walks. He then adds at least 10 to 12 minutes a day doing stretching exercises. Even at 88, Dave feels great physically and has a good deal of confidence in his appearance. When we asked Dave what his doctor would say about the way he manages his health, he told us that he had just visited the doctor the day before, who enthusiastically said, "Whatever you're doing, just keep doing it!"Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements

Sleep: your daily reset button

Along with regular exercise, sleep plays an essential role in our Physical Well-Being. To study the value of quality sleep, we conducted an experiment that tracked the effect of a full night of sleep (or lack thereof) on the following day. People who felt irritable before going to sleep and then had a good night's sleep had above-average moods the next morning and afternoon. In contrast, for those who were in a good mood at the end of the day but did not get the right amount of sleep, their mood levels dropped to average, and they were more likely to feel irritable the next day.

Getting a good night's sleep is like hitting a reset button. It clears our stressors from the day before. Even if we have a bad day, getting a sound night of sleep gives us a fresh start on the next day. It also increases our chances of having energy and high well-being throughout the day.

But we're getting less sleep with each passing year, and we now sleep an average of 6.7 hours during a weeknight. This means that many of us are falling well short of the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night. As a result, we move slower, have trouble concentrating, become forgetful, make bad decisions, are more irritable, and show visible signs of sleeplessness.

Learning while you sleep

Sleep serves a larger purpose than simply keeping us well-rested. Our brains are extraordinarily active when we are asleep. In fact, our learning may actually accelerate while we are sleeping. Scientists are discovering that we learn and make connections more effectively when we are asleep than we do when we are awake. Each night of sleep allows our brain to process what we learned the day before. As a result, we are more likely to remember what we learned if we get a sound night's sleep.

Many of us are falling well short of the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night.

A 2004 study illustrates the importance of sleep and how it helps our brain mentally catalog what we have learned each day. A team of German researchers taught people how to solve a particular type of math problem using a complicated procedure. They asked the participants to practice the problem about 100 times. The participants were sent away and told to return 12 hours later. Then they were instructed to try it another 200 times.

What the researchers did not tell participants was that there was a much simpler way to solve the problem. Many of the people in the study discovered the shortcut over time. The critical differentiator -- in terms of those who figured it out -- was sleep. Participants who slept between sessions were 2½ times more likely to figure it out compared to those who stayed awake between sessions. The study revealed how the sleeping brain was actually solving a problem -- even though the person did not know there was a problem to solve.

Sleep helps us synthesize the learning and experiences of a day. While we sleep, our brain is playing connect-the-dots until we wake up. And it likely does so more effectively than we could if we tried when we were awake. So while we have known all along that a good night's sleep helps the next day, it is just as important for encoding information we learned the day before.

The Five Essential Elements of Well-Being

For more than 50 years, Gallup scientists have been exploring the demands of a life well-lived. More recently, in partnership with leading economists, psychologists, and other acclaimed scientists, Gallup has uncovered the common elements of well-being that transcend countries and cultures. This research revealed the universal elements of well-being that differentiate a thriving life from one spent suffering. They represent five broad categories that are essential to most people:

  • Career Well-Being: how you occupy your time -- or simply liking what you do every day
  • Social Well-Being: having strong relationships and love in your life
  • Financial Well-Being: effectively managing your economic life
  • Physical Well-Being: having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis
  • Community Well-Being: the sense of engagement you have with the area where you live


Hellmich, N. (2009, June 2). Good mood can run a long time after workout [Electronic version]. USA TODAY. Retrieved September 23, 2009, from

Kirk, E.P., Donnelly, J.E., Smith, B.K., Honas, J., LeCheminant, J.D., Bailey, B.W., et al. (2009). Minimal resistance training improves daily energy expenditure and fat oxidation. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41(5), 1122-1129.

Krucoff, C., & Krucoff, M. (2000). Peak performance: How a regular exercise program can enhance sexuality and help prevent prostate cancer. American Fitness, 19(6), 32-36.

Mayo Clinic. (2008). Moderate exercise. Mayo Clinic Health Letter, 26(1), 1-3.

Muennig, P., Jia, H., Lee, R., & Lubetkin, E. (2008). I think therefore I am: Perceived ideal weight as a determinant of health. American Journal of Public Health, 98(3), 501-506.

Penhollow, T.M., & Young, M. (2004, October 5). Sexual desirability and sexual performance: Does exercise and fitness really matter? Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 7. Retrieved September 23, 2009, from volume7/fitness.html

Puetz, T.W., O'Connor, P.J., & Dishman, R.K. (2006). Effects of chronic exercise on feelings of energy and fatigue: A quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), 866-876.

Stickgold, R., & Ellenbogen, J.M. (2008, August). Sleep on it: How snoozing makes you smarter. Scientific American Mind, Retrieved September 23, 2009, from http://www.

Stickgold, R., & Wehrwein, P. (2009, April 18). Sleep now, remember later. Newsweek. Retrieved September 23, 2009, from

WB&A Market Research. (2009). 2009 sleep in America poll: summary of findings. Retrieved September 23, 2009, from the National Sleep Foundation Web site: article/sleep-america-polls/2009-health-and-safety


Jim Harter, Ph.D., is Chief Scientist, Workplace for Gallup and bestselling author of Culture Shock, Wellbeing at Work and It's the Manager. Dr. Harter has led more than 1,000 studies of workplace effectiveness. His work has also appeared in many publications, including Harvard Business Review, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and in many prominent academic journals.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030