Stress of lunchtime workouts

Best time to exercise: why are lunchtime workouts so stressful?

Posted by for Workouts

Working from home was supposed to give us more time to look after our wellbeing, right? But midday exercise is still a headache.

Back in the mists of time (read: pre-2020), when we used to work full time in offices, working out was a real pain in the arse. We’d be at the gym for 6.45am so we could nip to Pret at lunch and be in the pub for 6pm. It had to be that way, because lunchtimes were so precious; even if you had a gym in the same building, getting down there, changing and showering meant the actual workout could only be 20 minutes long.

I used to look at the nannies and yummy mummies coming out of the Virgin Active opposite my office at 1pm with terrible jealousy. Imagine popping to midday pilates without needing to have one eye on the clock! If I did workout at lunch, I’d spend the first part of the afternoon still dripping over my keyboard having rushed from the weights room to the shower, the gym to my building and up three flights of stairs. It was brutal. 

So, when working from home became a thing, it was really exciting. Those days of killing yourself with presenteeism were gone. The pandemic has allowed us to flow, run and lift at midday, shower, make lunch and calmly carry on with our work. At least, that’s the theory.

Because working from home hasn’t actually undone the stress of lunchtime workouts at all – it’s just that the stress has mutated. Instead of breaking into a sweat at the thought of being seen back in the office precisely 60 minutes after you left, now the fear is of not being back online.

The other day, I went to a gym class at 1.15pm. It’s not my usual time to go (I’m an early morning/6pm exerciser) but it was the only time that this particular session was available and I was looking forward to having a total break from the stress of instant messages. Any time I’ve gone for a short run at lunchtime, I always feel a lot more awake in the afternoon too, so I was looking forward to a calm and mentally focused day ahead. 

However, as the session drew to a close, I clocked that it was just gone 2pm. That afternoon meeting was in 45 minutes and I was still burpeeing. The cool down started and unlike the 7.20am class, the instructor wasn’t giving people the option to skip the stretching. I was trapped. Eventually, I ran out of the studio at 2.10pm, still shaking from the intense workout and by the time I got home, I was 10 minutes over my lunch break. As I showered, my laptop balanced precariously on the sink just in case anyone messaged.

I spent the afternoon meeting on mute, shovelling in spoons of stew. The whole panic of getting home and back to work on time had left me feeling more pranged out than ever. If a fit and healthy workforce is good business, you’d think more companies would make a point of allowing employees to have extra time to look after their health during the day.

Lunchtime exercise makes us better at our jobs

And that’s because there are real benefits to working out in the middle of the day. If you go to the gym at 6.30am, you’re often knackered by 3pm, but a Leeds Metropolitan University study found a strong correlation between daytime exercising and workplace self-assessment. 

Researchers got over 200 employees to work out during the day and compare their work performance to the days when they didn’t work out. They found that on the days when they hit the gym, they could manage their time more effectively and had higher levels of productivity. They also got on better with their colleagues and reported a higher level of satisfaction at the end of the day. 

Lunchtime endorphin-spikes also make us calmer at work, according to a study by Warwick University. It found that exercising at midday improved calmness by almost 30%, with employees saying that they felt better equipped to handle stress.

How to make lunchtime workouts less stressful

So, what’s the solution? Well, it might be worth chatting with your line manager about tweaking your hours. Perhaps you could take a longer lunch break and make up for it by starting work 10 minutes early (easier if you’re working from home still).

In my case, one lunchtime workout a week is just about as much stress as I can handle but it’s probably a good exercise in time management. I could, for example, have my lunch already prepared – as I would at the office – before I head to the class. My clothes could be laid out in the morning for a quick post-shower transition. But most of all, I’m probably overthinking how desperately people care whether I respond to a Slack message immediately or not. We need to push for productivity over presenteeism; lunchtime workouts may just be the perfect tool for that.

Boost your energy at lunchtime with a Strong Women Training Club workout.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.