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I tried working out at lunch to combat my 3 p.m. slump

As a longtime sufferer of afternoon sleepiness, I wanted to see if breaking a sweat in the middle of the day would improve my productivity.

I tried working out at lunch to combat my 3 p.m. slump
[Photo: Element5 Digital/Unsplash]

For as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced an afternoon slump. Somewhere between lunch and 3 p.m., my eyelids start getting heavy, and for the next 30 minutes, I can kiss any ounce of productivity goodbye. I’ve learned to schedule mindless tasks during that time. I clear my emails or do work that requires little concentration, like conducting web research.

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As a productivity-obsessed writer and editor, I’ve already adapted many healthy habits, which should theoretically help combat this slump. For the most part, I sleep between 7 to 7.5 hours a night. I wait 14 hours between dinner and my first meal of the next day, which is usually a protein and healthy-fats combo. I drink a lot of water. I exercise five to six days a week. I keep snacks like nuts and hard-boiled eggs handy so I don’t succumb to sugar cravings.

Nothing has worked. In fact, over the last month I noticed that I’ve begun getting two slumps—one at 11 a.m. and one at 3 p.m. Recently I decided it was time to make a change, so I tried a lunchtime workout to see if it could help me get that precious afternoon productivity back.

The benefits of exercise on the brain

The evidence linking exercise and productivity is pretty compelling. Clinical exercise psychologist Dr. Bill Sukala previously told Michael Grothaus that cardiovascular exercise can reverse brain shrinkage and slow down aging. It can also improve our cognitive function, elevate our moods, and manage cortisol, the hormone associated with stress.

What’s less clear-cut, however, is how different exercises affect the brain, and whether the time of day you exercise can impact your alertness and productivity. I tend to do most of my workouts in the mornings (alternating between cardio and strength training), and occasionally I’ll swap or add in an evening workout if I want to take a group class. I haven’t really noticed a difference in my overall cognitive function depending on what exercise I do or when I perform it. Most importantly, the endorphins don’t seem to last long enough to stave off my 3 p.m slump.

The midday workout: A burst of endorphins with a side of stress

For this experiment, I tried working out in the middle of the day over the course of four days. I alternated between high-intensity interval training (HIIT), steady-state cardio, and strength training. (I’d intended to include one session of yoga and stretching, but work obligations got in the way.) The first noticeable difference was that my 11 a.m. slump was gone. However, I noticed that I took longer to focus when I got to work in the morning. I’d become so reliant on the post-exercise endorphins to get me going in the morning that not sweating first thing felt very strange.

At the same time, I found myself operating more in urgency mode. I knew that when I factor in the time it takes for me to walk to the gym, get a decent workout in, take a shower, and freshen up, I’d have to be out of the office for 90 minutes. While I made up this time by coming to work an hour earlier and leaving half an hour later than usual, it felt like I was operating under a tighter time crunch. I felt pressured to get things done more quickly, because I was afraid that if I left it until after my midday workout, I wouldn’t get around to doing these tasks.

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Unlike other writers, who have tried similar exercise regimens and reported feeling anxious about whether their coworkers would judge them for leaving the office midday, or who worried about not being able to deal with a work emergency, my anxiety dissipated once I was actually working out. The gyms, unsurprisingly, were noticeably emptier than they are at 7 a.m. or 7 p.m. In a depressing and exhausting news cycle, breaking a sweat was an effective way for me to reset my brain and come back to work in a better mood. I was also able to push myself harder—the fact that I only had a limited amount of time motivated me to make sure that I got the most out of my workout.

Sadly, the post-exercise endorphins wore off around 3 p.m., and I still experienced a crash. However, I did notice they were shorter. And when I snapped out of it, I was able to refocus with a greater level of intensity. My afternoons, overall, were definitely much more productive.

Investigating the science behind the results

In the past, whenever I’ve conducted any (highly unscientific) productivity experiments, I never dug deep into why a certain activity made me feel a certain way. But my desperation to combat the 3 p.m. slump drove me to do things differently. I consulted Maria Urso, a human performance specialist for O2x, a human-performance training center.

Urso said that productivity is all about the intersection of cognition and sleep. My 11 a.m. crash, Urso suggested, might have occurred because I wasn’t properly rested the night before, or because I didn’t refuel before and after my morning workout. Exercising in a fasted state (which I often do) causes a drop in my blood sugar, and if I wait too long before I refuel with complex carbohydrates (which I’m guilty of), Urso said, I’m not doing what I need to do to stabilize it. When I exercise in the afternoon, however, I eat before and after my workout—so even though I still experience a crash, it’s less pronounced because my blood sugar is more balanced.

I asked Urso whether the 3 p.m. crash is something that we can beat, or whether it’s an inevitability that we all need to live with. Michael Breus, sleep expert and author of The Power of When, previously wrote that fighting the afternoon slump is like trying to go against biology. Breus suggested that rather than trying to eliminate it, we should all try to maximize our productivity during that time as best as we can.

Urso is more optimistic. “I think it’s possible to beat it,” she says. At the end of the day, energy regulation is about paying attention to the simple things. Are you getting enough good-quality sleep? Are you moving enough? Are you eating nutrient-dense foods and regulating your caffeine intake?

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When it comes to maximizing mental performance, Urso has a simple suggestion, which is to move. “Getting that natural light exposure [also] makes you feel so fresh,” she said. For people who aren’t able to work out in the middle of the day, she suggests getting away from your desk for 10 minutes a few times a day and taking a walk outside.

As for me, after the experiment, I decided that the stress and time crunch I felt in the mornings weren’t worth the afternoon endorphins. Now, when my 3 p.m. slump hits, I try to leave my desk and go outside for a walk for 10 or 15 minutes. I don’t always come back fully awake, but I know that when I eventually get my energy back, I will have at least had a mental break that makes it easier for me to focus for the rest of the afternoon.

As a productivity addict, I remain hopeful of beating the ever-elusive 3 p.m. slump. For now, I’ll be experimenting with changing my eating window and sleeping habits instead.

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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