top of page

Boosting Mental Well-being and Performance at Work With Physical Activity

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

Contributors: Rojan Khoshreza and Victoria Grainger

In the office setting, sedentary behaviour and a lack of physical activity can cause many health issues, impacting employee productivity and overall well-being. Having an inactive workforce can show up in absenteeism, presenteeism, and increased benefit claims. And, since the pandemic started, the rate of sedentary behaviour (ie.: being inactive) has increased due to the restrictions and remote or hybrid arrangements. Additionally, the increase in mental health needs has skyrocketed leaving employers grappling with how to support the well-being of their employees to keep them happy, healthy, and productive.

The good news is there are things we can do to create a healthier workforce. This article reviews the statistics regarding physical activity and sedentary behaviour among employees, the benefits of promoting physical activity and breaking up sedentary behaviour at work, and finally, practical tips to get more active at work for employers and employees.

Let's Look at Some Statistics Together

Many started working online and from home, which caused many to sit more than usual. This affected employees leading to what many have called the ‘quarantine 15’ - a play-off of the ‘freshman 15’ associated with the weight gain that many experience as they head to college or university. Among employees:

  • Ráthonyi G, et al (2021) report showed a decrease in physical activity and an increase in sedentary behaviour since the pandemic

  • In general, 18% of individuals reported physical activity less than once a week. Physically inactive employees showed a 27% prevalence of cardiovascular diseases compared with physically active ones, reporting 18% of cardiovascular diseases (Birdee et Al., 2013).

  • Those who were inactive reported 14.9% more difficulty coping with stress compared to those active, reporting 7.1% difficulty (Birdee et al., 2013).

  • More active employees reported feeling happy less of the time for only 2.4% of the time compared to 6.4% of the time in inactive employees (Birdee et al., 2013).

  • Inadequate sleep was also a common issue reported those employees who were active reported 26.5% of insufficient sleep compared to 40.3% in inactive employees (Ryde et al., 2020).

  • Inactive employees report more sick time than physically active employees (Ryde et al, 2020 and Birdee et al 2013).

Benefits of Physical Activity on Mental Well-being

The good news is that creating environments that promote physical activity and break up sedentary behaviour can have many benefits. Physical activity helps release endorphins and these hormones interact with the receptors in the brain that reduce the perception of pain and trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to morphine. Physical activity and exercising help increase levels of chemicals in the brain, such as:

  • Serotonin

  • Stress hormones

  • Endorphins

These hormones help the person by:

  • Reducing anxiety, and depression

  • It helps make the person happier

  • It helps to get more and better quality of sleep

  • It helps to improve the sense of control and coping ability

  • It helps to improve self-esteem

Let’s take a deeper dive into physical activity and sedentary behaviour.

What Does It Take To Be Physically Active?

Many believe that to be physically active, we need to go to the gym and engage in hard workouts. This can make being physically active seem overwhelming which can prevent us from being active and living a more active lifestyle, especially while at work. However, “physical activity” is actually any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that require energy expenditure. This means that any movement including walking or moving in transportation, climbing stairs, etc., can all count as physical activity. However, to see the benefits we listed above, you need to engage in bouts of 10 minutes and more of an activity that raises your heart rate making it difficult to talk. The key is to consistently get active doing activities that you enjoy.

Sedentary Behaviour

On the flip side, sedentary behaviour refers to sitting for a long period of time during waking hours. Research shows that sitting for periods of four hours or longer can be more detrimental to our health - even if we exercise daily than smoking. This has led to the term that sitting is the new smoking - ie: a lack of physical activity and too much sedentary behaviour (sitting time), is beating out smoking as the leading cause of preventable disease and premature death. For office workers, this research is incredibly important and breaking up sitting time will help to improve our well-being AND our productivity, innovation and creativity.

Practical Tips to Increase Physical Activity and Decrease Sedentary Behaviour at Work

As a leader or employer there are many things you can do to support your people to be more active and less sedentary. Here are a few tips::

  • Put up signs by the elevators that encourage stair use

  • Make sure there is storage space/lockers for bikes to promote active commuting

  • Incorporate walking meetings into the workday

  • Encourage active breaks

  • Offer sit stand desks

  • Partner with local fitness providers to offer corporate discounts (ex YMCA and Goodlife Fitness offer corporate discounts)

  • Offer a step or walking challenge

Whether working in an office environment or at home, there are many things to increase your own activity levels.

  • Set calendar reminders to break up your sitting time (once every 60 or 90 minutes)

    • If feasible, climb five flights of stairs to move more or, take a five-minute walk outside or in the halls

  • Walk to a washroom on a different floor if applicable

  • Take your colleague to go for a short coffee break walk when feasible

  • Hand-deliver messages rather than using the email, if applicable

  • Try this 15-minute workout guide for busy professionals (member-only resource) during your break

  • Try using this quick stretching guide a couple of times a day

  • Try these short particACTION office workout videos: Get Fit as You Sit

Final tip

Exercising will help reduce stress and anxiety, preventing and reducing chronic diseases. Therefore daily physical activity can help you to live a healthier and happier life. So let’s get moving!

About the Contributors

Rojan Khoshreza

Rojan has completed an undergraduate degree from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology, Sports and Recreation. Her passion includes promoting health and wellness both physically and mentally with physical activity and sports. She focuses on spreading knowledge about the benefits of physical activity in the hope to see effective improvement for future generations. During her free time, Rojan enjoys being active, singing and doing music and enjoys reading books.

Victoria Grainger

Victoria is an educator, entrepreneur, fitness enthusiast, mom, and a passionate advocate for the impact well-being has on performance. She is the founder of Wellness Works Canada, a non-profit association that empowers, educates, and supports organizational well-being practitioners and employers in building healthy, high-performing work cultures.

She has worked in the field of health promotion and population health for 20 years. She has supported countless public, not-for-profit and private organizations in developing, implementing, and evaluating comprehensive organizational well-being strategies to create environments where people and business thrives. She has an MBA and a Bachelor of Physical Education specializing in health promotion. She is also a trained Personal Trainer Specialist, Nutrition and Weight Loss Coach and Triathlon Coach.


Amherst College. (n.d.). Exercise | Self Care & Stress Reduction | Amherst College.

Ashe, M. C. (2012). Physical Activity and Workplace Sedentary Behaviour. Physiotherapy Canada, 64(1), 1–3.

Better Health Channel. (2012). Exercise and mental health.

Birdee, G. S., Byrne, D. W., McGown, P. W., Rothman, R. L., Rolando, L. A., Holmes, M. C., & Yarbrough, M. I. (2013). Relationship Between Physical Inactivity and Health Characteristics Among Participants in an Employee-Wellness Program. Journal of Occupational and

Environmental Medicine, 55(5), 514–519.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, September 25). Lack of Physical Activity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DeNoon, D. J. (2008, May 30). Exercise and Depression. WebMD; WebMD.

Fox, K. R. (1999). The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public Health Nutrition, 2, 411–418.

Increasing Physical Activity and Decreasing Sedentary Behaviour in the Workplace Executive Summary. (2015). Alberta Center for Active Living. Retrieved from

Ráthonyi G, Kósa K, Bács Z, Ráthonyi-Ódor K, Füzesi I, Lengyel P, Bácsné Bába É. Changes in Workers’ Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Sustainability. 2021; 13(17):9524.

Ryde, G. C., Atkinson, P., Stead, M., Gorely, T., & Evans, J. M. M. (2020). Physical activity in paid work time for desk-based employees: a qualitative study of employers’ and employees’ perspectives. BMC Public Health, 20(1).

Scaccia, A. (2016). Serotonin: Functions, Normal Range, Side Effects, and More. Healthline.

World Health Organization. (2020, November 26). Physical activity.; World Health Organization: WHO. Retrieved from



bottom of page