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It’s 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and while my co-workers are toiling away at their desks, I’m in a tank top and sneakers, halfway through a workout on an elliptical machine. I’m worried my editor is trying to get ahold of me. I hope I haven’t forgotten any scheduled meetings. I have 40 more minutes until I have to rush back to the office. I haven’t eaten lunch.
This trip to the gym is an experiment. I’m part of the 23 percent of adult Americans with full-time jobs who, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, actually bother to exercise regularly during the week. To fit it into my schedule, I usually do it in the morning, at an obnoxiously early hour. If I wait until the evening, I find that I’m either too tired, too lazy, or both. But there’s an elusive third option I’ve always wanted to try: to become one of those people who exercise in the middle of work.
Midday exercisers are a tricky bunch. They disappear around lunchtime and come back with flushed faces and damp hair, sometimes toting a rolled-up yoga mat that they quickly stash behind their desks before joining the rest of their sluggish co-workers at an afternoon conference. Ask where they’ve been and they might admit to exercising, or they might smile slyly and say only that they had to step out. Even though companies have been encouraging employees to exercise more for years (to improve health insurance premiums, some corporations offer reimbursements for gym memberships, while others have resorted to paying employees by the mile to run or swim), many health-conscious employees still exercise before or after the business day. Those who do work out at lunch are often torn between the desire to stay in shape and the fear that they’re ditching work.
According to Steven Mena and Abraham Scott, two personal trainers I talked to at an Equinox fitness center in New York, there’s a specific type who visits the gym during work. While evening exercisers skew younger, because they don’t yet have families waiting for them at home, the afternoon crowd is older, more professional, and more disciplined. “They have an agenda, and they have only 45 minutes in which to finish it,” says Mena. There are even programs such as CrossFit that promise a complete fitness routine in just 20 minutes. Meanwhile, he says, “The after-work crowd treats the gym like it’s happy hour.”
The midday turnout at a few Manhattan gyms supported Mena and Scott’s theory: Men showed up in blazers, dress shirts, pressed slacks, and loafers, while the women arrived in everything from jeans to skirts. They entered with purposeful frowns and left with pink cheeks and that “I recently sweated” sticky glow that, frankly, is kind of gross. But they were all smiling.
“It gives me a burst of energy,” says Valerie, 29, who works at a promotional company but didn’t want to give her full name in case her employer saw this article and disapproved of her gym jaunt. “If I don’t get out of the office, I’m miserable,” adds Stephanie, 22, who works in finance and has the same worry. (Apparently, these are not companies with fitness initiatives.) “I base my calendar around this,” says John Froud, 46, an investment banker who says he has his assistant schedule appointments to accommodate his trips to the gym. Nearly everyone I talked to agreed with Valerie that an afternoon workout made them more productive when they returned to their desk.
Their claims of more energy and a better mood—one guy said he did his best thinking in the gym’s sauna—made them sound a little deluded, but there is plenty of research to support their claims. “Depending on how quickly you refuel after you’re done, the boost can last for two to three hours,” says Dr. Darin Padua, director of the Sport Medicine Research Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Of course, it’s easier to exercise during work if you can do it without leaving the office. Some companies, such as PepsiCo (PEP), HBO (TWX), and Google (GOOG), have their own on-site fitness centers. Google offers 230 exercise classes a week, including one called How to Dance at a Party, which includes a “field trip” where all the geeky Googlers try out their new moves at a dance club.
If you use company facilities, however, be prepared to encounter a boss or co-worker while you sweat. “One guy I worked with would change in front of me for some reason,” says Daniel Ahn, 24, a project accountant for a defense contractor outside Washington, D.C. Ahn used to work out in his office building’s gym, but he couldn’t handle the locker room awkwardness or the inevitable run-ins later that day. “You don’t want to make eye contact, but if you do, do you say something? It was really weird,” he says. Eventually he gave up and started exercising after work.
Women often take longer to get dressed than men, and it’s not always easy to re-groom in the middle of the day. I found just as many women as men who exercised during business hours, but almost all worked in casual office environments. “I’ll take a class at my gym in the middle of the day, then shower and come back,” says Megan Isaak, 28, an art director for the New York-based urban retail map website CityMaps.com, “but I work at a small Internet startup. The lifestyle is a lot different than your normal job.” Meaning she wears jeans to work.
“The trick is to not wash your hair,” says Jill O’Toole, 42, who works in publishing in New York. I caught O’Toole coming out of a Manhattan gym, where she’d just finished a yoga class. She says that as long as she doesn’t have to restyle her curly shoulder-length hair, she’s away from the office for no longer than an hour and 15 minutes. Sometimes she doesn’t shower at all.
I considered following O’Toole’s advice, but after 30 minutes on the elliptical and 15 on some weird bicycle-shaped contraption I’d never seen before, my fear of smelliness trumped my fear of being gone too long. Back at my desk, I found that I really did have more energy. But I also had to work longer into the evening to make up for the time I spent exercising—or, as my boss might put it, slacking off.