Running is the best strategy for staying productive while WFH

Working from home is hard. Running helps—a lot.

At least it helps me. I don’t presume to advise anyone, but I’m willing to tell my story when asked. (And I was asked by my editor.) As a devoted runner for many years, I’m finding it more valuable than ever during the pandemic.

I’m not an elite runner. I’ve never run a marathon. My routine—subject to disruption, like all routines—is five miles before breakfast, six days a week. No more, no less. I’m not fast. On a flat route that run takes me 44 minutes, which is pretty pokey. 

Here’s what I’ve found: On days that I run, my mind is sharper, my mood is sunnier, and my judgment is sounder. I have more energy, not less. All of that is in line with the extensive research on the benefits of exercise. I’ve also found a benefit you don’t read much about: Because I’m burning a lot of calories—not just while running, but also because running speeds up one’s metabolism through the day—I can eat a lot without gaining weight. And I really like eating.

I’m finding the benefits even greater in the pandemic because working from home increases the risks of becoming depressed, bored, and whatever is the clinical term for stir-crazy. Running gets me out of the house, which might not otherwise be necessary for days. I run outdoors in virtually all weather, and as a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor was quoted as saying, “Everyone is happier outdoors.” In the semi-rural area where I live I rarely see other humans on my run, but I do see deer, foxes, owls, black squirrels, and wild turkeys. Just experiencing a world outside my home and my head is beneficial, and in this pandemic you can go a long time without experiencing such a world. 

The benefits of running in the pandemic may be far greater than the ones I can feel. Researchers from the University of Arizona note that while exercise is beneficial in many ways, what may be especially valuable “during this pandemic is its ability to both enhance immune defense and mitigate the deleterious effects of stress on immunity.” Specifically, “there is evidence that exercise can protect the host from many types viral infection.” Their conclusion: “It is imperative that we strive to maintain recommended exercise levels during this Covid-19 pandemic.”

Sometimes, when the crush of work is especially heavy, I skip my run for a day or two or three. I usually wonder in retrospect if I saved any time. Running jump-starts my brain, so I’ve typically done a good deal of work by the time I get home. I write and edit articles in my head. But when I don’t run, my brain doesn’t wake up until an hour after the rest of me.

Runners do hurt themselves, but even that can have a silver lining if it forces me to make changes with long-term benefits.  In the spring I was running a hilly course, which punishes the knees and hips. When I started to hurt, I altered the course to eliminate some of the hills and focused on improving my form. (Key thoughts: Emphasize the arch in the lower back and look ahead, not down at the road.) Today my posture is better than it has ever been—and feels better—all day long. 

Research says most of the physical benefits I get from running 30 miles a week are not much greater than if I ran 10 miles a week. But research also shows that while exercise may yield diminishing returns, it never entirely stops helping. Cleveland Clinic findings from 2018 showed that there is no ceiling on the benefits of exercise. 

Frankly, I don’t care much about the findings. The benefits from running that I can feel are good enough. Now more than usual, I’m grateful I can do it.

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