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How can I promote physical activity and wellbeing in a sedentary office environment?

12th February 2024

Physical activity blog cover

Sedentary behaviour still remains a key issue in workplace health. Since the introduction of the “office environment” and the invention of the chair, our work culture has undergone a significant transformation resulting in a lack of physical activity.  

The conveniences of modern office setups often mean prolonged hours spent sitting at desks, leading to adverse effects on both physical and mental health. The allure of the chair has, in a way, chained us to a lifestyle that is detrimental to our overall wellbeing.  

Various recent research findings indicate that extended periods of sitting can lead to adverse health consequences such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer. 

Maintaining a highly sedentary lifestyle over an extended timeframe negatively affects blood circulation. The human body relies on movement to rid itself of toxins. Even making slight adjustments to your posture at your workstation can enhance circulation, providing not only ergonomic advantages but also fostering overall health. 

Embracing initiatives to counteract sedentary habits becomes an essential step in promoting a workplace culture that values the health and wellbeing of employees. As such, physical activity is a great place to start. 

The Importance of Physical Activity

The sedentary nature of office work can lead to various health concerns, including heart disease and weight gain. Incorporating regular physical activity is not only beneficial for maintaining a healthy weight but also plays a crucial role in preventing cardiovascular issues. Moreover, physical activity is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, contributing to improved mental health, increased energy levels, and enhanced productivity. 

According to research, physical inactivity is linked to 1 in 6 deaths in the UK, and it is estimated to impose an annual cost of £7.4 billion, with £0.9 billion exclusively affecting the NHS. Regrettably, our population is currently around 20% less active than it was in the 1960s. If these prevailing trends persist, activity levels are projected to reduce by a further 35% by 2030. 

It’s vital for many to realise that physical activity holds significant health benefits, both physically and mentally. It plays a crucial role in preventing and managing over 20 chronic conditions and diseases, including certain cancers, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and depression. 

Challenges in a Sedentary Work Environment

With the rise of remote work, the challenges of promoting physical activity have only intensified. Many employees now face the struggle of finding time and motivation to stay active, with the boundaries between work and personal life becoming increasingly blurred.  

However, rather than viewing these challenges as deterrents, organisations should see them as opportunities to encourage creativity in their wellbeing strategies. Wellbeing teams can explore innovative approaches to promote physical activity, considering the unique circumstances of remote work. This may involve incorporating virtual fitness classes, leveraging wellness apps, or encouraging short activity breaks throughout the workday. By adapting interventions to the current remote work reality, organisations can actively contribute to the health and wellness of their employees. After all, the benefits of doing so far outweigh the costs when the offer is positioned the right way. 

The Benefits of Physical Activity in the Workplace

Provided the workplace has the right approach to physical activity, such as a strong support from senior leadership, the right engagement strategy, as well as strong commitment, research shows that physical activity can have a positive effect on a whole host of outcomes from improved productivity to improved health outcomes for employees.  

For example, a scientific review encompassing 28 studies investigating workplace physical activity revealed that comprehensive, multicomponent worksite health promotion programmes incorporating physical activity components yielded favourable outcomes. These include notable enhancements in health outcomes, decreased absenteeism, reductions in sick leave, and positive returns on investments.  

Ways to Promote Physical Activity at Work

  • Gym Discounts: Partner with local gyms to offer discounted memberships to employees. This not only encourages regular exercise but also supports local businesses. 
  • Active Meetings: Encourage walking or standing meetings to break the sedentary work routine. Consider holding discussions or brainstorming sessions while taking a stroll outside or utilising standing desks. This promotes both physical activity and creative thinking. 
  • Workplace Wellness Challenges: Beyond fitness challenges, incorporate broader wellness challenges that encompass various aspects of health, including nutrition and mental wellbeing. This holistic approach can motivate employees to adopt a healthier overall lifestyle. 
  • Flexible Workouts: Provide flexibility in work schedules to accommodate employees’ workout routines. Allowing them to take longer lunch breaks for a gym session or offering flexible start and end times can make it easier for individuals to prioritise physical activity. 
  • Staircase Challenge: Promote the use of stairs by launching a staircase challenge. Encourage employees to take the stairs instead of the lift, and consider implementing signage or fun challenges to make stair climbing more engaging. 
  • Active Commuting: Encourage active commuting options, such as cycling or walking to work. Provide facilities like bike racks and showers for those who choose these alternatives. Additionally, consider incentives for employees who actively commute, such as recognition or small rewards. 
  • Fitness Trackers and Apps: Integrate technology by encouraging the use of fitness trackers or wellness apps. Create challenges or friendly competitions based on daily steps or workout achievements. This not only promotes physical activity but also leverages the popularity of technology for engagement. 
  • Nudge Technique Integration: Employ subtle nudges to gently guide employees towards healthier choices. This can include strategically placing signage or visual cues that encourage physical activity, such as reminders near lifts to opt for stairs or placing fitness-related messages in common areas. Subtle nudges can create an environment that prompts individuals to make healthier choices without overtly instructing them. 
  • Standing Desks: Offer employees the option of using standing desks to reduce sedentary behaviour. Providing adjustable desks allows individuals to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day, promoting better posture and increasing overall physical activity levels. Additionally, consider educating employees on the benefits of standing desks and proper ergonomics to encourage their use. 
  • Education on Physical Activity Programme Design: Recognising the significance of tailored fitness initiatives, organisations can empower employees by providing educational resources on designing effective physical activity programmes. Offering workshops or online sessions that cover topics like goal-setting, creating personalised workout plans, and understanding the principles of a balanced exercise routine can enhance employees’ knowledge and self-efficacy. Educating individuals on how to design programmes that suit their unique needs and preferences nurtures a sense of autonomy and long-term commitment to a physically active lifestyle. This knowledge empowers employees to take charge of their own health and fitness, contributing to a more proactive and engaged workforce. 

Promoting physical activity in a sedentary office environment is crucial for the overall wellbeing of employees. By recognising the importance of staying active and implementing initiatives such as staff challenges, wellbeing programmes, fitness classes, and gym discounts, employers can contribute to a healthier and more productive workplace. 

Understanding that “context” is paramount, it is essential to engage in conversations about the significant aspects that drive increased physical activity changes. These discussions should encompass considerations such as the unique needs and preferences of employees, potential barriers to participation, and the integration of flexible work arrangements. Additionally, promoting a culture that values and supports physical activity, coupled with providing education on programme design, will further empower individuals to make sustainable lifestyle changes. 

If you would rather not go it alone, don’t hesitate to contact  Health@Work. We understand the significance of employee wellbeing and our consultants are experts in their respective fields. To learn more about our wellbeing training and support services, feel free to get in touch.  

Before you go…

Don’t forget to check out our employee benefit packages which include access to over 3,000 gym membership discounts and explore “Exercise Simplified – Creating a Personalised Exercise Plan” for a more tailored approach to fitness in your workplace. 

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