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Caffeine vs. Cardio: The Key to Afternoon Workplace Productivity

by Trish Lomonosov / December 13, 2018

“Humanity runs on coffee.” I once came across this anonymous quote and my reaction was to nod emphatically in agreement with this widely accepted truth. I am, after all, someone who prefers no human contact and wouldn’t consider forming words into sentences until those first few sips of creamy deliciousness hit my lips each morning. But while I accept that my love of this morning elixir is woven into the fabric of my being (and by no means would I dissuade you from partaking in your morning cup), I have begun to question if there is a better way for employees, particularly teleworkers, to stay focused, productive, and alert during those sloth-like afternoon hours. This led me to explore some alternatives to relying on a caffeine fix to “survive” afternoons. After all, why just survive? Why not conquer?

What I’m learning is that simply moving your body during the afternoon hours provides all the natural fuel needed to remain sharp and on task as the clock ticks closer and closer to 5:00. No java, joe, brew, liquid energy, jitter juice, or caffeine infusion needed! Clearly, you will not find this nugget of truth in Starbucks’ marketing materials, so read on to learn about some changes you can make in your afternoon routine to stay razor sharp. After all, America doesn’t HAVE to run on Dunkin.

Caffeine Fix: The Rise and Fall

The Rise. Caffeine acts upon the central nervous system and stimulates our bodies to produce a surplus of adrenaline and dopamine, substances that increase energy and elicit feelings of euphoria. As the warm goodness of coffee washes over us and taps into the reward center of our brains, the stimulant properties begin to take hold. Sounds pretty delightful, doesn’t it?

The most noticeable benefits are typically felt within one hour of consumption as our bodies experience some lovely, mood-enhancing effects. Caffeine can make us feel alive! Alert! Wakeful! Caffeine can help sharpen our focus, concentration, and mental and physical acuity. It can make us ready to roll up our sleeves and tackle the day that lies ahead. It’s no wonder caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world!

The Fall. If only the benefits of our cup of joe would last the whole day through. Sadly, when the increased dopamine and adrenaline begin to wear off, the caffeine fix leaves a path of energy-sucking destruction in its wake. This is known as rebound fatigue.


We’ve all been there … sitting at our desks trying to produce quality work while maintaining a friendly disposition, but instead feeling like we are in grave danger of slipping into a coma. This can be especially true for the home office employee who doesn’t have the benefit of gathering around the water cooler for a lively chat in the afternoon.

So what’s the answer to dragging ourselves out of that afternoon wasteland and into the land of productive employees? Another cup of java, of course! But, as with most drugs, our bodies develop a tolerance to caffeine, requiring us to drink more and more to achieve the same desirable effects. And so the cycle continues. Surely there must be a better way, right?

Another Alternative: Get Moving!

In many organizations, employees feel compelled to work through lunch and clock as many hours as possible to achieve maximum productivity. Some firms even act as caffeine pushers by loading up the pantry with an assortment of coffees and multi-flavored accoutrements – something to please every employee’s palate! Employers may view this as a small investment aimed at keeping employees happy … and increasing the company’s bottom line.

However, research suggests that exercising during the workday, not drinking caffeinated beverages, enhances our ability to concentrate and stay focused. In fact, the Brookings Institute found that low-intensity exercise can reduce feelings of fatigue and enhance mood as much as medium-intensity exercise. Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK studied more than 200 employees over time to determine how their productivity varied depending on whether they worked out during their lunch break. The study revealed that employees’ self-rated work performance, mood, and attitude toward tasks and colleagues improved when exercise was built into the workday.

The interplay between exercise during business hours and its impact on productivity may require a bit of a mental shift for employers and employees alike. Consider for a moment this quote from the Harvard Business Review.

“Instead of viewing exercise as something we do for ourselves — a personal indulgence that takes us away from our work — it’s time we started considering physical activity as part of the work itself. The alternative, which involves processing information more slowly, forgetting more often, and getting easily frustrated, makes us less effective at our jobs and harder to get along with for our colleagues.”

It may be difficult for employers to embrace the concept of employees taking breaks during the day to hit the gym or put their running shoes on to pound the pavement. Taking time away from work to exercise may be viewed as a personal pursuit that conflicts with the goals of the organization. Your boss may prefer to see you plugging away at your desk with a hot cup of joe in hand.

Perhaps it’s time to start looking at productivity through a different lens. Remaining chained to your desk and relying on caffeine to survive the afternoons is not always the hallmark of a productive (not to mention cheery) employee. Taking time out of your workday to step away from your desk to get some physical activity can actually boost your output and improve your interactions with colleagues.

Special Considerations for Home Office Employees

Home office employees can face unique challenges as they often do not have the benefit of social interaction that typically occurs in a brick and mortar office. Furthermore, home office employees don’t have a boss looking over their shoulder to make sure they’re being productive.

In preparing to write this blog, I spoke to my co-workers, all of whom are home office employees, about how the reliance on caffeine or physical activity affect their productivity. Of my colleagues who do some form of activity during the workday, they unanimously agreed that fitting some exercise in allows them to be move productive, focused, and energetic during the afternoon hours. LeeAnn regularly takes her dogs for a walk at lunchtime. On the days when she isn’t able to walk, she has to rely on coffee or chocolate to get her through the afternoon slump. Keith takes his dogs for at least a one-mile walk at lunchtime. Breaking away from his desk for that short period of time clears his head, opening the way for him to be more productive and less tired in the afternoon. He also has a standing workstation with a treadmill that allows him to exercise WHILE working. Pretty cool!

Workout Office

Workout While Working? Yes, Please!

Kurt runs during lunchtime about twice per week. The workday runs make him feel better overall and he comes back to his desk more focused and productive after a good run. Kurt says he can tell when he hasn’t run for a couple days because his brain gets kind of foggy and everything just feels a little bit “off.” Sometimes he really has to force himself to run, whether he’s really busy, really tired, or the weather is bad … but he’s always glad he did. Kurt said “It would be great if caffeine could provide the same benefits, but for me it definitely doesn’t!”

I enjoy taking my dog for walks during lunchtime. We have wooded trails in my neighborhood so my dog and I enjoy getting some exercise and getting a little nature fix. I find it’s hardest to get motivated to walk on days when it’s rainy or cold, but those are the days when that little bit of exercise gives me the most noticeable boost. Prior to having a dog, I religiously relied on a caffeine fix to get through each sluggish afternoon. But when I started getting out and moving at lunchtime, I very quickly realized I no longer needed that afternoon caffeine infusion. I still rely on my morning cup (and foregoing that pleasure is not up for discussion!), but the need for the afternoon cup has simply disappeared.

For those with a severe sensitivity to caffeine, like my coworker Alison, it is especially important to recognize the effects caffeine can have on the system. Alison manages this by being almost totally caffeine-free, saving a coffee splurge for the few times a year when she truly needs the extra focus. As a result, she doesn’t experience caffeine withdrawal symptoms or those afternoon lulls … unless she is on low sleep! And as seems to be a theme in our company, she takes breaks to walk her dog when a fresh air boost is needed.

It Doesn’t Have to be Go Big or Go Home

Don’t have time to hit the gym during work hours? Don’t feel like showering in the middle of the day? I hear you, neither do I. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. Even a small amount of exercise can help fend off the afternoon doldrums. I keep a set of resistance bands near my desk. Regardless of how busy I am, I can always squeeze in a few sets of core exercises with the bands. Only have 10 or 15 minutes to spare? That’s enough for some core circuit training. Check out some predesigned routines online to keep you moving during the workday. Just getting out of your chair to do some pushups, stretches, planks, yoga poses, or some curls with hand weights can be enough to get the blood flowing. We’re talking minimal sweat – I promise!

Change of Ways?

If you think you might be ready to make some changes in your weekday routine, I encourage you to start small. Consider starting out by exercising one or two workdays per week. Try cutting back on your caffeine on those days and see how the afternoon goes. If you find it easier to conquer afternoons, consider adding another weekday workout or two to your weekly routine. If you’re too busy or too tired and don’t have the bandwidth for a full-blown workout, consider running up and down some stairs for a few minutes or doing a few sets of squats or wall sits. The type and length of activity you choose matters much less than just making the choice to get up and get moving. Any change you make will help put you on the path toward conquering your afternoons rather than just surviving them.

Tags: Telework

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Trish Lomonosov

Trish Lomonosov

Trish is a senior analyst/planning consultant for Fentress. She holds an M.S. in criminal justice and is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). Her personal interests include hiking, kayaking, and spending time with her two daughters.