Personal Experiment: Does Daily Movement Make You Happier, More Energetic and Less Stressed?

It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon. What’s the condition of your backside? Can you feel your legs, or did at least one of them fall asleep a few hours ago? And your back? Neck, shoulders – how much tension are they carrying at this point in the day? Not to mention your mood and concentration? Does your attitude take a nosedive this time of day? Has your brain turned to mush? Did you just have to read the same set of instructions or email memo a couple of times because your mind wandered off? How often do you end up feeling like this in a typical afternoon?

And…when was the last time you got up and moved – beyond a quick trip to the toilet or break room? I sense a lot of blank stares on the other side of this screen.

Are you one of them, or did you identify with any of the above scenarios? Consider your day for a moment – specifically your activity level. How compartmentalized is it?

Maybe you have your designated gym time, outdoor run or at-home routine. Excellent. Perhaps on the weekends you play with the kids, walk the trails with your partner or fit in a game or racquetball or Ultimate.

Now…what about those other hours?

You know – the ones you spend hunched over a keyboard or on an assembly line. The ones you’re sitting in meetings or at lunch with your coworkers. The ones you’re stuck in your car, trying to hold onto your sanity through an hour of traffic. The ones your aforementioned backside is glued to the couch.

The upsides to getting ourselves up and moving around throughout the day are so numerous, they’re almost overwhelming. We might understand the physical imperative for frequent movement – the role it plays in chronic disease and mortality risk, but we might not give it all the credit its due for its role in everyday satisfaction and concentration.

For instance, we might not appreciate the impact of moving on reducing anxiety (cue the performance reviews, project deadlines and drama-addicted coworkers) by growing the prefrontal cortex and promoting its communication with the brain’s fear center, in effect calming us – and maybe keeping us from turning an irritating office scenario into an emotional version of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We might not understand that less than an hour of walking or otherwise moving at just half of our suggested “maximum heart rate” can significantly reduce our physical experiences of worry – as well as anger and cynicism. (The office cynic routine isn’t nearly as funny outside of sitcom land. Am I wrong?)

Maybe we don’t know that getting up and moving frequently is a boon to our executive functioning – the very capacity associated with goal attainment. Perhaps it eludes us that simple movement at various times of the day offers us a creative advantage that could help us at work or home – from the smallest tasks to the biggest decisions.

In fact, we might not understand that we can gain all of these advantages in a single day by putting in less time with our work when we simply commit a couple hours a day to exercise.

What do these prospects tell you about your daily process?

Let me propose a grand experiment. Those of you who have been around the blog a while know how much I like my self-experiments. How about some personal research on what movement does for you – on the impact daily continual physical activity has on your mood, energy levels and productivity. Forget the peer reviewed studies. Yes, they’re compelling, but be an irascible PIA who demands his/her own evidence. (I frequently place myself in this category.)

Make yourself a guinea pig for the sake of your health and curiosity. Put yourself under the microscope, and see what comes of it. And, if you’re unhappy with the positive results for any reason, trust me: you can always have your sedentary life back – 100% guaranteed, no questions asked (except a small, silent “Why????”)!

I’ve even put together a handy PDF for this purpose.

Use the first week as a control week. That means don’t do anything differently. Literally go to work, sit at your computer or work station. Don’t lift a finger you otherwise wouldn’t lift. Live the sedentary life you’re probably used to at work – with no guilt whatsoever because this week you’re doing it for the sake of science.

Simply rate the following items from 1-10 (10 being the best) for a full week. The items to rate are as follows:

  • Energy
  • Motivation
  • Health
  • Mood
  • Stress
  • Productivity

That’s it. Those of you who have used the The Primal Blueprint 90-Day Journal will recognize this list (with the addition of Productivity) as the metrics you used there, too.

Now for our second week. No more slacking for science. Here’s the new and simple addition to your day. Remember, it’s a short trial. If after a week you don’t feel better, you can chuck the whole plan. (Here’s betting you won’t though.)

For this second week, perform a set of some type of exercise movement (10 pushups, 10 air squats, 10 burpees, etc.) every hour from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. That encompasses the work day for most of us. (If you’re on a different schedule, simply adapt to that.) I’d suggest even setting a timer for each 60 minute segment between movement stints so you won’t forget. Choose a movement that is moderately difficult for you and based on your fitness level. Scale the number of reps up or down according to your fitness level as well. The key thing here is to feel slightly out of breath and/or otherwise taxed after each set.

As you did in the previous week, rate the six metrics on a scale from 1-10. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious or just want to make the most of this scientific endeavor, take some notes on just what differences you’re seeing.

Were you able to get through a staff meeting without nodding off like you normally do? Did you have more ideas or initiative for a project than the first week? Did work get done more efficiently? Were you more patient with your kids, spouse or coworkers? Did you feel motivated to slant other behaviors toward healthier choices? Did you experience fewer or less noticeable slumps in energy or mood at certain times of day?

Okay, the floor is officially yours. Print off your PDF and start your self-experiment today. No time like the present after all! Start noticing what the effects of your “normal” sedentary/minimal movement are during the day, and be prepared for what you’ll observe in your life and work when you take on a modest but impactful change the following week.

Oh, and if you haven’t been introduced to Don’t Just Sit There! yet, check this out. This personal experiment is a great adjunct to that online multimedia program.

Enjoy, everyone, and share something of your process in the comment board. Thanks for reading!

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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42 thoughts on “Personal Experiment: Does Daily Movement Make You Happier, More Energetic and Less Stressed?”

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  1. I love this! I currently do 50 push ups every bathroom trip (sorry for the picture) ), and it really helps with energy level!

  2. I tend to doze off after lunch and around 3pm. Now that you mention this, I used to perform jumping jacks in the restroom during the winter (cold NorCal winter) to warm up, and I recall it working well. I’m going to do (not try!) this again.

  3. Going to be interesting doing any of those exercises in heels and a tight skirt!!!

    1. I’m sure that if you look, you can find a few things that you can do. Bring some hand weights, do dips on the edge of a desk or the bathroom sink. Get creative, do a web search….

    2. Put it on YouTube, you’ll be a sensation! And let us know when you do… 🙂

  4. I can’t do the experiment because I already make a point to move all day. I walk 1.5 miles to and from work and I take my kettlebell to work with me.

  5. I’m down for this mini experiment! Fortunately I work from home so I’m pretty much up and active every hour. I find taking a break from work to clean, run errands, or workout, helps me work with a better focus.

  6. This sounds like a fun idea. I haven’t really experienced late afternoon doldrums since going primal 5 1/2 years ago, but I’ll give it a try.

  7. Much as I love science, no way will I spend a week just sitting all day! But I’m already a total convert. If any of you haven’t tried this yet, do! It makes everything better & takes hardly any time really.

  8. I’m too tired to do that at 3 PM. Because I did either 100 reps of dips and pushups, or 100 reps of pullups at 7 AM.

  9. Apparently some people get the movement gene and think it is just OH SO FANTASTIC. They probably also like sports. I did not get that gene. I am athletic but I hate athletics. I rather be dead than do sports. I much prefer to lose on my own than win on a team. I do go to the gym and loathe every minute of it. I move only because I must. When in corporate America my favorite creative position — and one I was penalized for but never changed was — leaned back in a chair, hands behind my head, feet on the desk, as near prone as office equipment and good taste would allow. I competed with my brain. Trying to entice me to move is like trying to make a fish fly. I hate it. I exercise to stay fit so to do the other things I enjoy in life. Two people I quote often are Thomas Edison and Neal Armstrong. Edison said he never stood if he could sit, never sat if he could lay down. Armstrong said he believed a person was given a limited amount of heart beats and he wasn’t going to waste any on exercise. I do note, however, that it was his doctors that killed Armstrong, not a coach.

    1. So what’s the harm in trying the experiment above, just to see? Besides, at least to me, breaking exercise up into tiny bits like that makes it much more manageable and less like a chore.

    2. Believe me, I get it. When I remember to set an alarm on my phone to get up and exercise, I set it for half an hour out, because I’ll probably snooze it 3-4 times before I actually get up and do something. Some days, like right now, when work is hectic, I don’t set the alarm – I’m walking the 15+/- steps to the copier/printer/scanner and then back again multiple times an hour. On really busy days, I manage to get a good 2,000-3,000 steps just moving about the office.

  10. I’ve been moving a lot more lately and can confirm feeling much better in most of the ways you mention. Ironically, it’s also greatly improved my appreciation of sitting.

  11. Sit when you’re tired or when you need to (like when you’re sick or driving a car). Don’t sit just because you don’t know what else to do with yourself. You can better deal with boredom while walking, standing, or doing a few exercises. If you do sit a lot, get a large exercise ball and use it for a chair. It forces you to sit up straighter, and you will be moving your muscles slightly in order to maintain your balance.

    That said, it’s no crime to flop into the lounger when you’re tired. Just don’t take up permanent residence there. Limit your stay and learn to make it beneficial by concentrating on relaxing all your muscles. Many of us sit with some of our muscles half-tensed and we don’t even realize it. Adding in a little meditation while resting the body refreshes the mind as well.

    1. It’s so true that a lot of people (certainly many of my Massage clients) seem to only half inhabit their body, so when they flop they only half flop, and when they work out they are only half committed to it. Mindfulness mindfulness mindfulness!

  12. As a bit of a data junkie I think it would be cool if there was a poll on MDA where people could enter their data every week so we could see if there is a trend for the whole group.

  13. This is great stuff, I wish I had been tracking my progress like this over the past week. After getting a rather stern pep talk from a most remarkable woman I’ve made changes to the way I work to incorporate breaks and stretching.

    I’m in an environment that can be toxic and hectic at times and it was really starting to take a toll on me. I already have a standing workstation, but I stayed pretty well glued to it…. only occasionally moving between my desk and break room.

    I’ll set a timer for 45 minutes and work structured blocks of time, then set a timer for 5 minutes and step away from my desk. I’ve actually become more productive. I was told one time (not sure if it’s studied or simply anecdotal) the most you can realistically get out of a worker in productive time is six hours, I get 6.75.

    The funny thing is 5 minutes used to feel like the went in no time… now it feels like a great deal of time I can use to regroup and cool down a bit, and I usually have a minute to spare where it’s just pure quiet.

    Thinking about working the stretches in on those!!!

  14. I would caution that you need to have your muscles loose and warm when you do stuff like this, and stretch them after. Getting up from a desk with cold muscles and diving into a set of pushups can do serious damage.

  15. love self experiments! while research is great it can never be all encompassing because we are all different. Find what works for you and stick with it!

  16. You are wrong…about the office cynic at least. As a former adolescent cynic, who matured to college cynic, then graduated to military cynic, then matriculated to corporate cynic, I have built my life around wry cynicism & sarcasm, with more than a touch of self-mockery. Don’t take that away from me. (I think you’re right about the benefits of frequent movement, however.)

    1. Cynicism is poison. It’s a total dead end intellectually and morally. I think you may be confusing cynicism with skepticism or just plain enjoying taking the piss out of authority. And sarcasm is really just aggression for the most part.

      1. I agree with Mark that “The office cynic routine isn’t nearly as funny outside of sitcom land,” and it’s long been losing its luster in sitcom land, too. Cynicism is at best a defense mechanism for a damaged psyche, and/or a very limited coping mechanism in a toxic environment, and at worst a form of social vampirism. It generally takes from others rather than giving. Poison indeed.

        1. All true. And all undoubtedly instrumental in the fact that no one voluntarily associates with me except due to the obligations of blood, marital vows, or employment contracts. Still, cynicism is a potent seed that can sprout witty satire that frees the mind, or spawn draconian laws that stifle individual freedoms, depending on the nature of the cynic. Or it can be nothing more than a snarky reflex to those who are self-righteous, who don’t understand facetiousness, or who conflate opinion with fact. Regardless, I move a lot (though not as often as I should) and, despite all the good things that brings to my existence, it doesn’t drain my cynicism as quickly as society fills it up.

  17. This was a great read. Mark and others, you should out “Spark” by John J Ratey, MD. A great book with research about the importance of movement and exercise.

  18. Hi Mark
    Would you consider coming to do a talk at the Malibu schools about the importance of movement throughout the day for children as well as adults. I’m so sad, and so are my children, that movement is so limited at school. The eternal cry of ‘sit still’, ‘don’t run’ etc etc and the fact that recess is cut shorter and shorter in favor of ‘instructional time’ is, to me, inhuman. I would love you to do an article on the necessity of movement for young people throughout their day. Thanks!

  19. This is part of the reason I switched careers to physical therapy three years ago. Now I move around all day and don’t sit at a desk!

  20. I have been on a 30 min timer for 3 years now when the computer I work on tells me it’s time to move. Anything counts. Short walk down the block and back, 20 kettle bell swings, wall squats, abd roll, push ups etc etc. Feels great, Mark. I support this. Without the timer, I just forget completely.

  21. Another mid-day alternative to moving around at the office, is to do some stair-climbing (assuming your building has more than one floor!). My desk is in the middle of a cubicle farm, so I don’t want to be that guy who does desk push-ups or squats while my cubicle neighbor watches in disbelief.

    But taking a 10 minute stair climb is just the thing to get the blood flowing.

  22. Great idea! Although I already get up quite a bit and move around more than some, the notion of intention strengthening movements so many times a day in short bursts sounds intriguing and definitely worth a try.

  23. I’m trying to move more during the day too to combat a recent weight gain from some med changes. I just received my Topo Standing Desk Mat last week, and this thing is FANTASTIC. I have a standing desk, and with this mat I am able to stand for about half the day already. It is contoured with different heights in different areas of the mat (sort of hard to explain, Google Ergodriven and check it out). I find that being able to constantly change my foot position makes standing to work much easier. I am normally a fitball person which lets me fidget constantly, and being able to do this while standing has been great. Using a regular thick mat it was hard to move around and stay focused.

    I do have a bathroom inside the women’s locker room with carpet and space where I could drop and do pushups with every bathroom break, so maybe I’ll try that…. might get some weird looks!

  24. My “office” is a classroom at a public school on a 1,000 acre cattle ranch and my daily task is to herd five to seven year olds around. I love it! On my feet all day. “Paperwork” and lesson planning at a stand-up computer desk. P.E. in the Oregon sunshine, glorious. I enjoy after-work foraging for mushrooms and quail, or a run or trip to the climbing gym. Outdoor climbing, mountain biking and fly fishing summer and weekends. So sweet. Feels so good to move a lot. Only experiment I’m into is how hard can I send as I move into my mid 50s.

  25. Great post, Mark! 🙂 I’ve done this experiment in the past, and it really makes a huge, positive difference in mood and energy levels, when you remember to move around during the day. I’ve also noticed, that I get more productive at work, when I work less and move more, so what’s not to like? 🙂

  26. Ok… Last week I did nothing during the work week. Easy enough lol. Did I use the super simple tracking sheet you provided? No. Because I suck but I’m on week two of the experiment. And again I’ve already failed by not starting yesterday. But I started today (Tuesday)! I’ve been doing my 10 desk-ups every hour on the hour. It’s pretty embarrassing doing it in my office and I was so nervous the first time and lo and behold the office gym rat caught me and asked if I was doing push-ups. And I of course being as brave as I am said “…no…”. And then I found a hidden spot to do them the rest of the day. Lol. Overall my energy is up after one day but my productivity is down. However, I blame myself and I realize it’s only day 1. So I’ll do my best to keep this up all week. One thing I should mention is how the push-ups have actually gotten easier. Yes it’s only 10 but those 10 were hard! They’re getting easier I suppose since I’ve been doing them all day. Ok back to work I go :).

  27. Day 2 and I’m still noticing benefits! And I’m sore too 🙂

  28. My experiment was successful and I plan to continue from here on out. 🙂