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:
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.
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
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 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 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.
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