If you’re looking to take your work to the next level, you’re in the right place. In Part 1 of this series on how to improve work performance, we explored how to prioritise deep work, ways to become more efficient at work, the importance of your work environment, and more. In today’s blog we’ll focus on how to best look after yourself if you want to sustainably sharpen your mind and boost your energy.
- Spending time each day in daylight supports your musculoskeletal health and immune function, aligns your body’s clock with the sun, boosts your alertness and mood, sharpens your vision, and may even lower your blood pressure.
- Spend at least 1 h outdoors during daylight each day. Do so within 2 h waking if you’re a night owl. While indoors, spend time near windows, or fit your office with bright, white lights.
- Regular moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise can make you smarter. Just try not to schedule it any earlier than 30 mins after you wake up or any later than 3 h before you go to bed.
- Breaking up prolonged sitting with "exercise snacks" is good for your general health. Including brief stretches at these times can help you avoid looking like you spend your life sitting.
- Optimise your workplace ergonomics: The middle of your computer screen or laptop should be at about eye level, and your chair should support your lower back and let you sit up straight.
- What you eat affects your brain function. Eat to keep your blood sugar stable, and you might want to regularly include (blue)berries and oily fish in your diet.
Light up your day… literally
Light is important to much more than your ability to see objects.
You probably know that your skin synthesises vitamin D in response to a sufficient dose of ultraviolet-B radiation from the sun’s rays. In turn, vitamin D plays important roles in a vast array of biological processes, including bone mineralisation, immune function, and more.
Beyond vitamin D, exposure to light at your eyes is the most important cue in resetting the timing of your body’s clock each day. This is key, for it’s extremely unlikely that your body’s clock ticks at precisely 24 h when left to its own devices. The kind of high-intensity, short wavelength-rich light that you get outside on a sunny day can most strongly shift the timing of your clock. Expose yourself to more of such light in the first couple of hours after waking and you’ll tend to accelerate your clock, helping you fall asleep earlier. Get more of this type of light in the 2 h before bed, however, and you’ll slow your clock, delaying when you nod off.
Because of this body clock-shifting effect, your patterns of light exposure can meaningfully affect your wellbeing. Say you’re a night owl and have to wake to an alarm before work. The alarm restricts your sleep and, if sustained, sleep loss is likely to impair your brain health and cognition. For you, getting outside into daylight as soon as possible after waking for at least 30 mins will help you fall asleep earlier, provided you reduce your exposure to light in the 2 h before your planned bedtime (e.g., by using dimmers or switching some lights off). By falling asleep earlier, you’ll extend your sleep opportunity, which will in turn enhance your brain function and productivity at work. We'll get further into how to sleep better in future blogs.
Then there are the direct effects of light on other aspects of how your brain works. The same kind of light that shifts your body’s clock can meaningfully boost your alertness and mood - just ask anyone who has seasonal affective disorder.
Furthermore, it's clear that spending too much time indoors contributes to shortsightedness, especially when this occurs early in life. Interestingly, this isn’t just because of time doing close work – among other things, bright light per se affects the shape of the eye, by altering dopamine signaling in the retina.
And there’s also the fact that sunlight exposure can lower blood pressure… basically, provided you don’t get burnt or stare at the sun, the list of upsides of spending time in daylight goes on and on!
If I had to give a generic recommendation, I’d say spend at least 1 h outdoors during daylight each day, and do so within 2 h waking if you’re a night owl. (In modern contexts, morning larks usually don’t need to worry so much about timing of light exposure.)
While not an option for some of us, eating outdoors is a great idea. If you can’t get outside for some reason, increase the time you spend near windows. You might also want to consider changing the lighting in your workspace. While it’s best to have less bright, “warmer” lighting in your bedroom (think firelight), go for brighter, whiter lightbulbs in your office.
Move your body
While you’re outside, do some physical activity, even if you only go for a stroll. You’ll probably find that physical activity helps you think, and we know that various forms of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise are great for brain health and function across the lifespan. There are also striking advantages to exercising in nature - another one for another time.
If work is your priority, you might want to schedule exercise at a time of day dictated by your work schedule. However, I’ll add that the time of day at which exercise affects both your exercise performance and how your body responds to exercise (e.g., you’ll likely be strongest and might respond slightly better to lifting weights if you work out in the late afternoon). Regardless of what you’re optimising for, I don’t recommend doing very strenuous exercise any earlier than 30 mins after you wake up or any later than 3 h before you go to bed.
Exercise aside, it’s important to break up periods of prolonged sitting. It seems that inactivity contributes to dozens of chronic diseases, including the most burdensome ones. So, during downtime between work bouts, get up and move! As muscular activity triggers glucose uptake into the working muscles, going for a short walk after a meal can meaningfully improve blood sugar control and other aspects of cardiometabolic health. This isn't restricted to walking alone - various types of so-called "exercise snacks" can be beneficial, including climbing the stairs, calisthenics (including yoga), and stretching.
On that note, breaks from work are a prime time to do simple mobilisations to counter the kind of typical desk jockey posture that’s now so pervasive (I'm guilty as charged). Here are a couple of my favourite drills for this:
- Kneeling thoracic spine stretch (sorry about the audio!). You don’t need a partner for this – you can just place your elbows on a chair or table and then push your hips back to deepen the stretch.
- Split stance hip flexor mobilisation with overhead reach. You don’t need to do these as walking lunges, you can just do 10 reps of 1 side at a time, keeping your feet in place.
It’s also important to have an ergonomically appropriate workspace. Ideally, the middle of your computer screen or laptop should be at about eye level as you sit / stand / cycle at your desk. Your chair should support your lower back and let you sit up straight, and it will be about the right height if your feet are flat on the floor while your shins are vertical and thigh bones are horizontal.
Feed your brain
If you follow the advice we give here at Resilient Nutrition, you’ll already be eating in a way that supports your brain health and function. Check out our free ebook for more on this. I’ve also written about how to optimise your caffeine intake, and you might find our recent blogs on cocoa and L-theanine interesting too. Nevertheless, here are a few more things you can try if you want to nourish your brain:
- Eat in a way that keeps your blood sugar relatively stable. While the only practical way to assess this is using a continuous glucose monitor, if you apply the tips I mention in our ebook, you should meet this goal. As inactivity increases the likelihood of food intake triggering a blood sugar rollercoaster, it might make sense to restrict your carbohydrate intake if you’re inactive for extended periods. This is just one of the reasons that eating nuts is good for brain health… pass me the Long Range Fuel ;-)
- Eat berries. Of the berries, blueberries have been particularly well studied and seem to consistently improve important dimensions of cognition, including working memory. The quality and dose of the blueberries matter, but you don’t need to do anything unusual to benefit in this instance – a large portion of blueberries around the start of your work should do the trick.
- Oily fish is your brain’s friend. You’ve probably heard or read conflicting advice in the news about fish intake and brain health. While the data aren’t very consistent, my interpretation of the literature is that oily fish intake is terrific for general health and brain function. If you’re eating oily fish at least twice a week, you’re probably getting most of its benefits. Be sure to favour small oily fishes (sardines, mackerel, and salmon are all good choices), for some toxins accumulate up the food chain, hence tuna’s infamous mercury content.
Lots of other foods and food constituents support brain health, but let’s save those for a later date!
If you look after yourself, you’ll perform better at work and be better company to your colleagues.
I hope the last couple of blogs have empowered you with some simple things to try on your quest to becoming a champ at work. This process doesn’t have to be all consuming – your goal should be to become more efficient at work, not to be the last to clock off at the end of the day.
Thinking strategically about how to do better work might be one of the most beneficial changes you can make in your life.