The notion of an intervention which not only raises employee well-being but improves performance, increases productivity and reduces costs is appealing. So why is it then that there is still so much physical inactivity in our workplaces?
I propose that
- the science on how much physical activity REALLY matters is too new (& therefore not widely known),
- the leap of faith required to believe increasing physical activity will improve business is too great, and that
- the perceived cost of making workplaces more active (ie everyone needs a sit-stand desk, right? Wrong!) is too high
So here we go, let me talk you through it so you can reap the rewards for your business, your team and yourself.
FIRST, WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
The word ’Sedentary’ comes from the Latin ‘sedere’ meaning time spent sitting. Sitting though is just one component of the problem; standing for long periods also has negative health consequences. The root of the matter is stillness, inactivity in any one position presents challenges for the human body. The human body is designed to move, and indeed, it needs to move to thrive physically, emotionally and intellectually.
WHY IS IT A PROBLEM?
In the UK physical inactivity is responsible for one in six deaths. Those who sit more
- have over twice the risk of developing type 2 diabetes & cardiovascular disease
- have a 13% and 17% increased risk of cancer incidence & mortality respectively
- are less engaged in their work
- are more likely to suffer neck, shoulder & lower back pain
Sitting for more than 30 minutes at a time exacerbates the negative impacts of sitting in particular those relating to Body Mass Index (BMI), waist circumference, glucose & insulin levels
This research is not new. Over 60 years ago links were proven between physical inactivity and morbidity or premature mortality in sedentary individuals. What is new is the scale of the sedentarism and inactivity that pervades our lives.
HOW WIDESPREAD IS IT?
In the UK sedentary behaviour now occupies 60% of people’s waking hours.
As a nation we are now nearly 30% less active than we were in 1961. The majority of this decline has come from a displacing light physical activity with sedentary activity in the workplace and the home.
WHY DOES IT MATTER TO THE WORKPLACE?
Office workers are one of the most sedentary populations. Office workers spend 65-70% of their waking hours sitting. More than 50% of this is accumulated in prolonged periods (more than 30 mins) of sustained sitting.
Those who spend more time sitting are the least engaged in their work.
Those who sit more are more likely to suffer back pain. 35% of the working population suffer with back pain at any one time. Businesses loose on average 17.6 days to each case of back pain.
On non-working days people sit by up to 2.5hrs less
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
We can change our habits. We can break up bouts of prolonged sitting or standing with more movement. Even short but frequent sessions of light-intensity movement make a difference.
We can grow cultures that embrace movement. We can make standing team meetings and one-to-one walking meetings the norm.
We can create environments that encourage movement. We can remove some chairs so there is space to stand, we can make staircases spaces people prefer to the lifts and we can encourage the leaving of the desk!
WHAT IMPACT WILL INCREASING PHYSICAL ACTIVITY HAVE FOR THE INDIVIDUAL?
The physical and mental health impacts to the individual are considerable when physical activity is increased
- The risk of heart and circulatory disease is reduced by 35% and the risk of early death is reduced by 30%.
- Fat deposits around vital organs (heart, kidney, liver) are reduced irrespective overall body mass.
- Energy expenditure is increased; the simple act of postural changes, standing and movement can add 0.5-2kcal per min (which could be up to 1000kcal a day)
- Neck pain & lower back pain are reduced.25 26
In addition people report feeling happier and less anxious as well as sleeping better.
WHAT IMPACT WILL INCREASING PHYSICAL ACTIVITY HAVE TO THE ORGANISATION?
The impacts to organisations that increase physical activity in the workplace extend far beyond the gains in individuals’ health. There are positive changes to individuals’ function
- Improve cognitive function
- Reduce occupational fatigue
- Create a greater sense of collaboration.
As well as positive changes to key performance measures
- Increased employee engagement
- Improved work quality & productivity;
- Greater work quantity & efficiency.
- Reduced presentism
WHAT IMPACT WILL INCREASING PHYSICAL ACTIVITY HAVE TO THE BOTTOM LINE?
The cost of implementing ‘Move More’ strategies in the workplace is low whilst the opportunities for savings are considerable
- Presentism alone in the UK is estimated to cost in excess of £30bn.
- Back pain costs the UK in excess of £10bn
- Disengaged employees in the UK cost excess of £52bn per year in lost productivity.
- Anxiety costs the UK in excess of £10bn
The economic impact of improved employee engagement and increased work productivity is well known and can be easily calculated by most organisations.
In addition there are financial and productivity savings to the individual as well as those who support them at times of illness or injury.
SO WHAT NOW?
Just MOVE! Really, it can be that simple.
- Stand up every time you hear a phone beep
- Take a lunchtime walk with colleagues
- Print to the machine furthest away from your desk
- Set team movement goals
- Drink more water …..
… and many more. Just think by thinking ‘MOVE’ every half hour or so you’ll begin to make the change happen!
Increasing physical activity in the workplace is not as hard or disruptive as it can first appear. Simple steps with the right leadership can have a big impact.
Leaders need to become braver, individuals need to wake up to taking responsibility for their own health and we all need to recognise that physical inactivity throughout the day is one of the biggest health challenges of the UK in 2019.
Tanya is co-founder of Move More UK. She is passionate about seeing people thrive by moving more!