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Some of my best work moments come when I am getting away from work through physical fitness. In the past when I jogged, and now when I cycle, walk or snowshoe, I am building my fitness and getting stress relief, but invariably, at some point, my mind starts to ruminate about work challenges, and I unlock solutions. On the other hand, when I practise the intricacies of tai chi and check the impact on my body – or struggle as a neophyte with cross-country skiing – my mind is generally focused intently on what I am doing, and there is little chance for the creative mental leaps about work engendered by those other sports.

Fitness is usually seen as a balance to work (even if it is often intended to re-energize us or give us more stamina for work). But the reality is that only some sports and fitness activities take us away from work. Some return us to work, perhaps profitably. It helps to understand that dichotomy, and how to get what we are seeking when we take time off for fitness.

Fitness is, of course, primarily about physical exertion. It helps us to get in shape, improving our body and health. When we are feeling anxious, it's an inviting chance to regain our mental and emotional balance. "Exercise reduces negative emotional states and induces positive emotional states," says Gordon Bloom, a professor of kinesiology and physical education at McGill University. "You are working out, not thinking about issues in your life. You are clearing your mind. You feel better and are improving your body."

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Several internal chemical reactions occur as we exercise. Paul Valliant, a psychologist at Laurentian University, explains that one of the immediate effects if we leave work and head to the gym or for a jog is that we use up our adrenalin, which is high at that juncture. We burn off excess energy so when we return to work we are at better balance. Over the longer term, the body releases cortisol through exercise, which gives us the energy to handle the issues of our life. Of course, we are also releasing endorphins during exercise, which fights the pain accompanying the exertion by giving us an exercise 'high.' "Exercise gives us a time out from work," he says. "It relieves stress."

But is it a time out, where you clear the mind? Not always, notes Ann Pegoraro, director of the School of Sports Administration at Laurentian. When she plays basketball, she disconnects from work because she has to immerse herself totally in the game, co-ordinating with her teammates. "I am not thinking of other aspects of work or life as I have to concentrate on what I'm doing," she says. But if she's walking her dog, another fitness break, her mind wanders back to work.

She chooses her fitness activity in part by what she needs at the time: "I have, at times, picked sports where I need physical exhaustion. I don't want to think. Other times, I am feeling less stress and pick up on something solitary where I can think."

To her, the distinction is between team sports and solitary activity, although she notes that a competitive athlete in what is seen as a solitary activity, such as running or cycling, is so intent on the competition, developing strategies, that he or she has no time to check in on other aspects of life. I'd add beginners to an activity, who are highly focused on getting the fundamentals straight, and can't operate comfortably on auto pilot.

She points to the clips she has seen of U.S. President Barack Obama playing basketball. Most of the people he plays with are members of his administration, so the reminders of work are present. Still, she says, "When you seeing him playing it looks like his time, time away from work. He can get the tension worked out and then can concentrate better on work when he returns. If you enjoy the game, it's also uplifting, and that helps."

Prof. Valliant says it's important to pay attention to whether you are an introvert or extrovert as well. He points to the gym, where you may see people working out in a group or alone. The group activity is more likely to take you away from your work problems, unless they're colleagues and as an extrovert you like to talk out your problems with others. The individual working out alone has less to capture the mind – usually just the television in the background – and reflections on work may well arise. If the individual is an introvert, that works out fine for contemplating work challenges, but it won't be so hot for extroverts.

What about golf? It's not as clear cut as other fitness activities. Walking in a beautiful outdoor setting can put work at bay, and the sport requires intense concentration at certain periods. But much of the time on the course is spent wandering between shots, perhaps alone when your ball goes to a different area than the other players, the mind wandering where it wants. At other times you stroll, in conversation with partners. The other players, of course, may have been invited as business guests – so you are away from the office, but explicitly doing work. Indeed, in such situations, Prof. Bloom notes, you are focused on social niceties – keeping your guest happy – and economic activity, advancing the chance of future sales.

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The message: Fitness is not always time away from work. Sometimes it is work. Sometimes it's an opportunity to let our mind wander and do work while we seek physical relief. And sometimes it's a chance to fully engage in an activity apart from work. You need to distinguish, to fully benefit.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance.

E-mail Harvey Schachter

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