How physically intelligent are you at work?

Those of us working in desk jobs can harness our body’s amazing potential to enhance productivity and health, just as much as those of us in ‘physical jobs’ can.

Our physical bodies play a vitally important role if we want to perform at our full potential at work, both in terms of our performance and our health. I’m not just referring to those who are in what is considered to be a ‘physical job’. You don’t have to work as an athlete, lumberjack or violinist to optimise your performance using the amazing powers of your physical body. Everyone busy with a ‘desk job’ can reap huge benefits from gaining some physical intelligence and applying those skills during their work day.

So what exactly is physical intelligence?

In order to answer this question we need to consider the different sides to our intelligence. We tend to think of intelligence as being the domain of the brain rather than the body. In recent years, emotional intelligence has also become acknowledged as an essential skill at work and in our lives in general, but our ability to understand and control our emotional responses seems instinctively to be a mental process. For many of us, when we sit down at our keyboards to tackle a demanding task, we want our brain to sharpen and our body to offer up as little distraction as possible.

The difference between a good and a bad work day

But as we sit typing at our desks, our body’s chemistry is shifting continuously. Hormones and neurotransmitters regulate everything we do. They determine how every experience plays out – how we feel emotionally, the way we react, the decisions we make and how we think and behave. The cocktail of chemicals at large in your body at any given time can make the difference between a day of healthy peak performance and a day when you feel demotivated, irritable and foggy-headed.

Woman focussing fully on lightbulb in her hand

Are you sinking or swimming in the sea of your body’s chemistry?

Someone with physical intelligence has the ability to assert some control over the way these physiological responses play out. They can read and understand the way their body reacts to the world around them and can adopt strategies to assert some control over these reactions. Rather than being a helpless victim, drowning in this shifting sea of chemical responses, they step in and turn the situation to their benefit and in doing so get to optimise their energy, cognitive performance and physical health.

Are you happy to perform in a sub-optimal state at work?

If your answer to this question is no, then it’s time to acknowledge your body’s role rather than becoming a ‘brain on a stick’, where you’re so consumed with your mental processes that you forget about the existence of your body altogether. If you ignore your body, you miss out on its early-warning messages, which call for your attention so you can take physical action to rebalance your brain and body. Perhaps your breathing has become shallow and your muscles have tightened due to a stress response. You’re up against a tight deadline and things aren’t going your way, kicking in a fight-or-flight response from your nervous system. Cortisol and adrenaline are at play in your body, causing your heart to race and blood pressure to increase. Creative thought drops out and you enter survival mode, negatively impacting your productivity and causing even more anxiety and stress. By cultivating awareness of these signals and taking steps to address the problem – for example by adjusting your posture, taking a stretch, walking around, scanning your body mentally, breathing deeply – you can create the balance needed to get the task done with a clear head.

How does science prove this brain-body link?

2014 Stanford University study showed that participants walking on a treadmill whilst tackling a creative thinking task were 45% more likely to come up with a high-quality, innovative idea than the participants who sat still at their desks to carry out the same task. This is proof that we can’t ignore the impact of our physical movement on the way we perform cognitively. Those locked in ‘brain-on-a-stick’ mode are missing out on an amazing, physical productivity hack.

The best performance enhancer ever

The simple act of controlling your breathing, for example, is probably the most powerful, impactful and drug-free performance enhancer that exists. There is no tech required, it’s free, it’s at your disposal 24/7 and there are no negative side-effects. By taking time to breathe deeply in a slow, rhythmic fashion, you stimulate the vagus nerve, king of the parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and recover mode), helping you to find your focus and countering the instinct to panic when things get challenging.