Anyone who's traveled for business knows that jet lag, sleep loss and change in diet and routine can play havoc with your head. Alertness, memory skills and mood can all take a dive. To cut through the brain fog, many people turn to caffeine or over-the-counter alertness products.
Exercise may be a better remedy.
A recent study of business travelers found that exercise significantly improved their performance. It also showed that most business travelers think they're performing better than they really are.
Dr. Mark Rosekind, president and chief scientist of Alertness Solutions, a consulting firm in Cupertino, Calif., conducted the two-part study of business travelers last year. In the first part of the study, 3,500 participants from the United States and Canada answered a 58-question online survey. Of those surveyed, 66% said they exercised while traveling; of those who exercised, 35% said the activity improved or greatly improved their performance.
For the second part of the study, Rosekind tapped 25 frequent business travelers and studied them more closely. Participants were tracked for the two days before leaving on a business trip, during the trip and for two days after they got home. Their trips lasted two to five days and crossed two or three time zones.
The travelers wore wrist activity monitors that recorded their activity level and sleep quantity and quality. They also carried electronic hand-held organizers, logged how they felt and took five-minute tests several times during the day to measure their reaction times, attention and vigilance.
"Those who exercised during their trip performed 61% better than the nonexercise group," Rosekind said. "This puts exercise in the realm of naps and caffeine in terms of boosting alertness and combating fatigue. I thought exercise would help. I was surprised by how much."
Peter Galier, an internist and chief of staff at Santa MonicaUCLA Medical Center, said that, given a choice, he would rather people take a brisk walk than a shot of coffee to perk up. "The benefits of caffeine are short-term, and you pay for it by feeling low when it wears off," he said. "Exercise makes you feel good, and there's no payback later."
Rosekind, a former director of NASA's Fatigue Countermeasures Program, relied on the same methods in this study (conducted for Hilton Hotels) that he had used on astronauts and pilots.
In one NASA study, Rosekind and his colleagues found that pilots who took a 40-minute rest break (averaging 26 minutes of sleep) improved their performance 34% and their alertness 54%. Caffeine had a similar effect, boosting those two measures 30% to 50%, even when the person was tired. Until the recent study, however, he hadn't seen data on the effects of exercise on mental performance.
"I often heard commercial and corporate pilots say that exercise helped them stay awake, but we didn't have any studies to prove it," he said. "This study confirms what they have been saying for years."
Discrepancies between how people thought they were doing and how they actually were performing also were enlightening. Although participants routinely reported that they were performing at a high level, their actual performance on average was 20% below their baseline -- the scores earned at home.
"People overestimated how well they were doing, which is really important: People think they're OK, and they're not," Rosekind said.
A dip in mental acuity may not matter much when you're traveling for vacation and plan to lie on a beach, but it can if you're traveling to give a speech or negotiate a contract.
Exercise may help a traveler's performance, Rosekind suggested, because it boosts the body's core temperature. "We know that both traveling across time zones and losing sleep disrupt our internal body clock. When that happens, perceptual skills, memory, mood and energy all drop."
The body's circadian clock relies on certain cues. One is light, which cues people to be active. Another is increased internal temperature, which is linked to alertness. This kind of heat doesn't come from being in the sun or a sauna but from your body's core. Physical activity heats you from the inside out and moves up your clock. Thus, he added, though exercising any time you're on the road is good, you probably shouldn't work out just before you go to bed.
Emily Greene, owner of a video production company in Gaithersburg, Md., spends two weeks a month traveling for business. Based on her own experience, she said she believes exercise helps reverse the stress and other side effects of traveling.
Her problem, however, was that she couldn't find a good workout to do in her hotel room and didn't like going to hotel gyms. That prompted her to team up with certified personal trainer Jessica York and created "Body to Go," a workout DVD business travelers can play on their laptops in their hotel rooms.
York leads the workout, which takes viewers through 40 minutes of cardio, plus exercises for the upper body, lower body and core. Viewers can do all or just part of the workout.
"The beauty of it is you don't need any equipment, and it still kicks your [behind]," Greene said.
Besides doing the in-room workout, Greene said she had trained herself to look for opportunities to be active while on the road. "If I have 30 minutes to wait to board my flight, I take advantage of those long airport corridors and go for a brisk walk."
Dr. William Hohl, a sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon on staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said Rosekind's findings made sense. "Exercise gives your mind a total boost. The fact that those who exercise on business feel more alert doesn't surprise me."
He added, however, that the findings needed further investigation. The study was small and didn't appear to take into account whether the participants who exercised also took better care of themselves in general.