The Software Developer’s Guide to Fitness & Morning Productivity

If you’re a software developer (or frankly, if you spend a large portion of your day sitting in a chair in front of a computer) you will be more productive if you find a way to incorporate a workout into your daily routine. I literally believe that if you’re working 8 hour days today, you will get more done working 7 hours and squeezing in a 30-40 minutes of physical exercise. I believe this because a couple months ago my family and I moved into the city a few blocks from where I work, and I traded long commutes sitting in traffic for some relaxing morning time with the family and a quick work out in the mornings at the fitness center down the hall. The value of living close to work and having a bit of relaxing time in the morning is probably fairly self explanatory, but for now I want to focus on why I’ve found exercising to be so valuable. I also want to call out a few things that I’ve learned in the process that I hope may make your life easier if you aren’t exercising regularly and decide at some point that you want to incorporate a work out into your day. I don’t claim to be a personal trainer or any kind of fitness expert (although I’ve consulted a few while putting together a program that’s effective and gets me in and out of the gym quickly). Don’t treat this post as a replacement for good advice from qualified health and fitness professionals; think of it as one computer geek sharing some practical tips with his fellow geeks about a particular way to get in shape and increase productivity.

Benefits of Exercise

From a pure productivity perspective, the biggest benefit to exercising for me is specific to working out in the morning. Rather than getting to the office feeling like I needed another two hours of sleep and only 4 cups coffee will get me through the day, I show up feeling awake and ready to start knocking off tasks in my queue. Because many of the folks on my teams tend to show up at 10 or 11 and work late my schedule is generally meeting free in the morning, which also makes it the most valuable time to be productive.

I don’t have evidence to support this, but anecdotally I have observed a link between fitness and career success. That’s not to say that you can’t have one without the other, but I believe that you have a better shot of being successful in your career if you work out on a regular basis. Working out makes you feel good, boosts your energy levels, helps strengthen your core muscles so that you’re comfortable sitting in a chair all day, gives you confidence, and perhaps most importantly gets you in a habit of setting goals and achieving them over long periods of time. When you’re jumping between jobs, there’s also evidence to suggest that interviewers make a hire/no hire decision that is extremely tough to overturn in the first 15 seconds of the interview process and whether you like it or not that first impression includes what you look like.

When to Exercise

Some people believe that working out in the morning boosts your metabolism throughout the rest of the day, but the limited research that I’ve seen seems to suggest that regardless of when you work out you get a short metabolism boost that goes away in a set amount of time. I’ve touched on why I find working out in the morning to be especially beneficial, but I would recommend working out at a time where you know you can be consistent; if you try to vary your workout daily according to your schedule you’re going to be way more likely to skip it. If the only way that you can be consistent is to take a quick jog on a treadmill in a 3 piece suit at lunch, do that… and do it consistently.

How to Excercise

Map out a routine that’s short and sweet, and ideally one that you enjoy. Get your heart rate up to your target zone and try to keep it up for 20-30 minutes. Pick a few exercises and do them in circuits with little or no rest between exercises (and a short rest between sets), at high intensity. Lean towards workouts that work large groups of muscles, for example doing push ups (or better yet, burpees) instead of bench press.

Personally I run between 1-2 miles and then pick 3 different exercises and do them in a circuit. I split the exercises into upper body, lower body, and core. I try to make sure that I hit each big muscle group at least once per week. It gets me in and out of the apartment gym in around a half hour, and I’ve found it to be effective. If you’re having trouble figuring out what exercises you should incorporate into your workout, chat with a trainer or check out one of the apps (there are several Crossfit WOD specific ones if you want to go that route) that are available on any phone.

How to Eat

One of the first things that I noticed when I started working out was that after my morning burst of energy I would start getting tired right before lunch. I figured out that eating protein in the morning helped, so I ordered a big tub of whey protein and started making a quick fruit/protein shake with some yogurt/milk every morning. Remember that your body needs protein to rebuild muscles after a workout, and if you’re like me you’re probably not in the habit of eating enough protein to start your day. Protein provides energy for a longer period of time than fat or carbs, so you’ll be getting fuel from your morning snack for longer.

Hope you find this helpful, and if you figure out any workout tips of your own as you get going please do share!

  1. Tudor

    Actually, protein does take less than carbs or fats to digest. Protein < Carbs < Fats (digest time).
    That source you link too it's not trustful. I've been working out for an year now, my progress is amazing so I speak from my own case. Why do you think you're feeling hungry just 2 hours after eating some chicken breast and veggies and only about 3-4h after eating some hardcore carbs (pasta) ? Very good article though, I like you thought of promoting fitness in developer's daytime.

    • Tyson Trautmann

      Thanks for the heads up, I’ll definitely have to dig a bit more into the nutrition side of things.

    • Protein does not take less time to digest than carbs. Carbs, both simple and complex, are quickly converted to sugars while proteins are converted much more slowly to amino acids. Fat is the slowest to digest. I have never heard anyone say they were hungry more quickly after eating a meal in protein (not saying you don’t, it’s just not the typical response). As you convert to a lower and lower carb diet with more protein and fat, you will discover that you are rarely hungry between meals. Carbs digest quickly, lead to an immediate blood sugar spike and cause you to be hungry again quickly.

      High carb diets result in higher insulin levels which often leads to higher hunger levels.

      Fats are the slowest to digest but also the most energy efficient. If you want to feel better and have better quality workouts, try a low carb (70-150 grams), high protein diet. Research paleo/primal eating. I’d say check with your doctor first but there are so few health professionals willing to support any diet outside the directions of the government suggestions. Do switch to paleo/primal slowly though especially if you currently have a very high carb diet as your body is used to deriving energy from carbs and not proteins. But do try it for 30 days or so. I think you’ll find the results surprising.

      Disclaimer: I’m a trainer but not a nutrition expert. However, nutrition science is in its infancy and you can learn a great deal of information by just doing some research and trying things out in your own diets. On top of that, societies with high carb, low fat diets are sicker and less healthy across the board compared to societies with diets high in protein/fat.

  2. I cannot really say I experienced both ways – with and without workout. Practicing martial arts since 14 years I train 6 days a week and what I learned the last months is that a workout around half the day really helps me regenerating and focusing on the second half.
    But I also never had any problem waking up in the morning or starting to work at 6 or 7.

  3. Maayan

    Exercise in morning: before breakfast (if you can swing it) or after?

    • Tyson Trautmann

      Before for me. I’ve read some interesting things about how eating carbs a bit before working out can give you more energy during your workout, but also takes your body out of “fat burning” mode. Again I’m no dietician, I would recommend doing some of your own research and a bit of trial/error to see what works for you.

  4. mog_man

    Nice post.

    I would add removing sugar and high fructose corn syrup from your diet. Energy drinks, vending machine food, sodas, and fruit juices (Jamba juice included) throw your energy balance out of whack. And, don’t just count calories. Calories from sugar is a lot worse than calories from fat, carb or protein.

    As for exercise, it isn’t to burn calories. It is to increase you metabolism and raise your mood.

  5. Good post.
    The Romans used to say “mens sana in corpore sano” – healthy mind in a healthy body. I also found that when i get to work out in the morning, my brain is a lot more relaxed and ready to start working on work stuff. Almost like coming back from vacation. Good touch on doing a workout one enjoys

  6. I am a believer in exercise, having seen that change my life after my first three decades of being completely sedentary. I also happen to prefer to do it in the morning before breakfast. And the protein for breakfast is something I have totally lived by for several months now, when I completely ditched my decades-old high carb breakfast habits; nowadays my breakfast is eggs (or leftover meat/fish) with veggies, and man, that makes a huge difference in delaying my pre-lunch hunger.

  7. man-elf

    I found that 2 half-hour sessions of yoga exercises bring a lot of energy into your work..I started practising this after I developed cervical spondylosis and now can code for a total of 8 hours .. previously,something like this was unthinkable.

  8. “Get your heart rate up to your target zone and try to keep it up for 20-30 minutes. Pick a few exercises and do them in circuits with little or no rest between exercises (and a short rest between sets), at high intensity. Lean towards workouts that work large groups of muscles, for example doing push ups (or better yet, burpees) instead of bench press.”

    There are a few problems with this advice:

    1. The arbitrary goal of increasing your heart rate for 20-30 minutes completely ignores the most important question: what are you trying to accomplish?
    2. Circuit training is only appropriate for particular goals. We shouldn’t be prescribing it without the proper context.
    3. Implying that push ups or burpees are superior to the bench press, especially in the context of working large muscle groups, again ignores the question of what you are trying to accomplish. If we are talking about strength training in general, then the bench press is superior to push-ups and burpees are almost completely irrelevant. If we’re talking about calorie burning and conditioning, then burpees are superior. But again, without proper context and asking the right questions, this sort of advice isn’t particularly helpful.

    • Tyson Trautmann

      Fair point I suppose, for my personal workouts I’m primarily working to shed a few pounds and get in better cardiovascular shape (for running/biking). I definitely agree that you need to consider your objectives when you plan a program, although I don’t really know many software developers who’s mission in life is to max their bench press.

  9. Para

    On the nutrition side of things I have found that eating some slow burning carbs the night before helps me feel fresher and have more energy in the morning.

    Promoting exercise to software developers is definitely a good thing, I find that I have always worked with unhealthy or overweight people and there is definitely a correlation between people who sit at a desk all day and obesity especially in software developers it seems.

    I think software development is an exhausting endeavour in itself, solving complex problems day in day out tends to make you feel tired which means most devs done find the energy or time to exercise.

    Personally I’m training for the British Army parachute regiment and find that I do so much exercise that it can make it impossible sometimes to concentrate on my day job, I really struggle with balancing hardcore workouts with working 8 hours a day (plus commuting 3+ hours) so there is definitely a trade off between doing too much and doing enough.

  10. After your breakfast, do you take a shower before going to work?

  11. Michael

    Great post! I think the key to all this is to get into the HABIT of doing exercise REGULARLY and CONSISTENTLY! Once you are into the habit of doing some exercise (whatever it is, however much or however little) then you miss it when you don’t do it – so you are likely to keep it up. Once the habit is formed, then you can play around with what works best for you in terms of activity, exercises, nutrition etc. The key is to START and KEEP AT IT!

  12. ahah

    Some software developers would try and reach their genetic potential in all the big compound exercises. Other software developers have vague, unquantified cardio goals and will never look like or be in serious shape because they are not strong.

  13. Wonderful post. The thoughts on the post are same as mine. As a online publisher, I normally sit in front of the computer at least 8-10 hours a day. Past 2 years have been working out in gym. Now am completely addicted to it. Addicted in the sense, if my day doesn’t start with working out in gym, its like something wrong has happened. Also starting my day working out makes me feel fresh and gives me energy to work all through the day. As you said, I feel sleepy sometimes during noon, but the protein intakes regularly keeps me energetic. Apart from health side, Working out in a gym gives you different mind set – the attitude, the self confidence it builds is Wowsome. People who has more negative vibe can learn lot of things. It has taught me so many things in life apart from gaining/losing weight. Key aspects ‘ Hard work, Patience and Consistency’ equals your success.

  14. T

    Your post suggests that protein is used as a “longer-lasting” fuel, as if that’s a good thing. I believe that carbs and fat are used first, and only when these metabolic pathways start to get exhausted or overtaxed do you start to consume protein as a fuel. You do NOT want this to happen, because you’re essentially catabolizing muscle.

  15. undy

    Exercising by running or riding from/to work is the way to go – convert the commute.

    • Alan

      That’s my preference too. I’ve always given myself a 10-12 mile ride (obviously you need to locate a shower, also somewhere you can air your sweaty cycling togs.)

      In whatever form, putting exercise first thing on the list means you actually do it, instead of merely promising yourself to do so. Great after work too. Pounding the pedals on the way home relieves all the stresses of the day.

      In Denmark, 5-10 minutes of exercise is broadcast on the radio each mid-morning and mid-afternoon. In lots of offices and factories, everybody follows these short exercise routines – great for stretching muscles that have become set, also the perfect stress-reliever.

  16. Igor

    Great article on a very important topic. For me, it’s an early morning walk, before going to work and yoga practice and gym on weekends. The most important thing is to do a type of exercise that you like.

  17. Prakashkaur

    Thanks a lot with regards.

  18. I used to weigh 270 lbs and I am now down to 164 lbs by exercising and eating less. I workout every evening after work, I find it a great way to blow off the stress of the day. I have worked out in the morning as well, and it does give a nice energy boost, but I prefer the stress release. What I have found that worked for me is portion control. I eat whatever I want, but I limit the amount. If I want a doughnut, I’ll eat ONE doughnut and stop there. As for my workout, as soon as I get home from work I do 60 push-ups, 700 crunches, 50 sit-ups and weight lifting with 20 lb dumbbells. After dinner I do another 60 push-ups, another round with the dumbbells and then I run 5k. On any given week, I usually lose 1-2 pounds, so I must be doing something right. :)

  19. matt-e

    I’m a developer, too. I worked out at gym, sometimes very consistently, sometimes inconsistently, until I had a child and it was just too much to get over there to do a workout. I picked up a bodyweight training guide called Convict Conditioning and a $40 pull-up bar and now I do various bodyweight exercises 6 days a week (compound movements like pull-ups, push-ups, bridges, leg raises, etc). On the weekends I run, and I’m trying to start adding a couple more runs during the week as well.

    Because I don’t need a lot of equipment and can do everything in my own home, I’ve been extremely consistent with it for a few months now and I’ve made more progress in that time than I have in the previous 10 years or so that I was going to the gym.

    I’m not anti-gym or anything (do what works for you!), but I’ve been amazed at how well this has worked for me and thought I’d share.

    Also I’ve found fitocracy.com to be a fun way for nerds such as myself to track progress.

  20. Gary

    You say you work out in the morning to feel good and ready for work, I work out after work so I feel good and ready for my home life.

    Each to their own I guess but I value my free time more than my work time.

  21. Bill

    If you’re really curious about protein vs carbohydrate diets and morning exercise, invest in a blood glucose meter. You can get them either over the counter or “behind the counter”, meaning that you need to ask the pharmacist . Measure your blood sugar before bed, in the morning before breakfast, etc. Track it! You might have been heading towards (not saying that your were) diabetes. Sedentary desk jobs are very hard on our health. Your morning exercise routine is the smartest thing that you could ever do for your health.

  22. The value of living close to work and having a bit of relaxing time in the morning is probably fairly self explanatory, but for now I want to focus on why I’ve found exercising to be so valuable. I also want to call out a few things that I’ve learned in the process that I hope may make your life easier if you aren’t exercising regularly and decide at some point that you want to incorporate a work out into your day

  23. I think software development is an exhausting endeavour in itself, solving complex problems day in day out tends to make you feel tired which means most devs done find the energy or time to exercise

  24. Great find, I’m going to have to check this one out. Thanks for sharing. Very informative….

  25. I think software development is a stressful effort in itself, fixing complicated issues day in day out tends to cause you to experience exhausted which indicates most devs done find the power or time to exercise.

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