Is your boss mean? Exercising could make him nicer

As demands for high productivity rise, the stress on upper management can be intense, and it’s not uncommon for bosses to take that stress out on their employees, sometimes becoming downright abusive.

While there’s no end in sight for high-pressure jobs, a new study found there is an easy way for the boss to handle stress better and avoid “paying it forward.”

The study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology found that bosses who exercise tend to be less abusive to their employees.   The researchers at Northern Illinois University asked M.B.A students who were employed to rate their boss’ behavior and also had their supervisors fill out a survey about their stress levels and weekly exercise.

The study found the more stressed-out supervisors were, the more their employees felt belittled and abused by them. But, bosses who exercised were rated less abusive than those who didn’t, even though their stress levels were about the same.

“This shows that our results are not simply because supervisors who exercised are less stressed than those who do not exercise,” said James  Burton, the lead author of the study. “Instead, we find that exercise buffers the negative effect of stress.”

“In other words, I may experience stress, but if I am in a better mood due to exercise, I am less likely to take my feelings of stress out on my employees,” he added.

To be a nicer boss, it only took a little exercise – just one or two days a week, and it didn’t matter whether the supervisor did yoga, aerobic exercise or lifted weights.

“We were pleasantly surprised to find that just a very moderate level of exercise is needed to stop the negative effects of supervisor stress on employee perceptions of abuse and bullying,” Burton said.

Abusive bosses are thought to have misplaced aggression, redirecting their stress at their underlings. But if the stress can be reduced in other ways, there’s less aggression to redirect. The benefits likely hold true for everyone, not just managers.

Exercise is known to help people cope with stress by improving moods and lowering anxiety.  Studies show that physically active people are less reactive to stress than non-active people, and people who exercise cope better with stress from all aspects of their life.

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She has authored several health books, including "Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility." Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.