Robert Stuthridge looks at why employees need to be encouraged to be more physically active.

The UK’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) has recommended that “adults should be active at moderate or greater intensity for at least 30 minutes a day on at least 5 days a week (either in one session or through shorter bouts of activity of 10 minutes or longer)”. At present, we as a nation are falling short of these recommendations, the cost of which may be measured in terms of the chronic disorders that accompany an inactive or sedentary lifestyle. According to the British Heart Foundation, 44% of adults in the UK never undertake any moderate physical activity, with 13% of adults being sedentary for more than 81/2 hours per day.

The 2008 Health Survey for England defines moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) as all activity that involves a metabolic equivalent of task (MET) score of three or more. The MET is the ratio of working metabolic rate to a standard resting metabolic rate. Metabolic rate is the rate at which a person uses energy or burns calories, with one MET being a resting metabolic rate.

There are undoubted benefits to be gained by following the CMO’s recommendations for MVPA, particularly for people already suffering with chronic health disorders such as diabetes (Laverty et al, 2013) and cardiovascular disease (Briffa et al, 2006). In the Medical Journal of Australia, Briffa et al noted that “benefits from regular moderate physical activity for people with cardiovascular disease include augmented physiological functioning, lessening of cardiovascular symptoms, enhanced quality of life, improved coronary risk profile, superior muscle fitness and, for survivors of acute myocardial infarction, lower mortality,” and that “the greatest potential for benefit is in those people who were least active before beginning regular physical activity, and this benefit may be achieved even at relatively low levels of physical activity”.

It is disappointing, therefore, to discover that most people are unaware of the CMO’s MVPA recommendations. One study by Knox et al, (2015) found that over 62% of UK adults are unaware of the MVPA recommendation, concluding that employers have a crucial role to play in reducing this high level of ignorance.

The question must be asked, though, whether simply increasing awareness of the recommendation is likely to be matched by an increase in moderate to vigorous physical activity? A study of the effectiveness of the UK government-sponsored campaign “Active for Life,” suggested that there was increase in the proportion of participants who were knowledgeable about MVPA after the campaign, but found that there was no overall improvement in activity.

More than knowledge is required, therefore, which is where employers come into the mix. Support of physical activity can have an impact on workers’ perceptions and behaviour towards physical activity. The Knox study concluded: “Employers should play a role in using targeted strategies to increase knowledge as employer support-related factors may influence knowledge of the MVPA guideline. Employers who assert strategies to promote physical activity and encourage employees who have responsibility for promoting health to educate their colleagues may help improve the MVPA knowledge of their employees.” (Knox et al, 2015, emphasis added.)

Employers can encourage physical activity by providing appropriate physical facilities in the form of bike sheds, showers, treadmills and sit-stand workstations, for instance. Employers can also institute policies that enable and encourage programmes of physical activity, such as, for example, “active commuting,” physical fitness coaching, gym membership, sponsoring public transport passes, stair-climbing, and so on. In addition to the employer’s direct influence over MVPA, a worker’s behaviour may be influenced by their colleagues. The more the worker encounters colleagues who actively commute to work, or choose to climb stairs rather than to take a lift between floors, the more likely they will be to take up similar activities.

Effective initiatives require sincere management support starting from the very top of the organisation. As evidence of this it should be the employer who initiates (by policy) and facilitates (by action) MVPA interventions. Exercise and Sports Science Australia Ltd (ESSA) provides an excellent step-by-step guide for employers in how to go about this. Assuming the organisation earnestly supports increased physical activity for its employees, the following initiatives may be appropriate in enabling and encouraging employees to meet the MVPA recommendations.

Stair use

Stairs afford good opportunities for aerobic exercise, but getting people to switch to climbing steps, rather than riding a lift or escalator, requires careful planning. One analysis of stair-climbing initiatives found limited evidence for their effectiveness and, when they were effective, the behaviour change was short-lived. Later studies have found that displaying the right message in the right format at the right location can be change behaviour, but is more effective for escalators with adjacent steps than it is for lifts.

Most worksites do not have escalators, of course, whereas lifts are commonly installed. When “point-of-choice” prompts — informational or motivational signs to take the stairs — are posted at lifts, it may be that the decision to ride the lift may be motivated by convenience, especially if the staircase is not immediately adjacent to the lift.

Active commuting

Travelling to and from work on foot or by bus and bicycle rather than by car are excellent interventions, providing that the journeys are efficient in terms of speed and simplicity. Implementing a subsidised public transport pass, providing well designed bicycle routes, erecting bike shelters immediately next to major access points — taking preference over executive car parking spaces, if possible — will send out a clear message of support.

Pedestrian walkways to the workplace from public transport locations should be efficiently routed, safely lit and well maintained, while parking may be physically or economically discouraged, provided that this is balanced with appropriate bus services and cycle networks.

Walking at work

Employers might provide free pedometers or fitness-tracking wristbands in the workplace and encourage their use by employees in walking “corridor circuits” (preferably including some stair climbing) during breaks from their routine work tasks. Individual or group (“team”) goal-setting advice and performance feedback may be provided through a wellness coach, the occupational health team, and/or through the intranet, internet or smartphone apps. The aim is to make walking an enjoyable but stimulating event in terms of MVPA, so well thought out “pre-timed” routes may encourage participants to maintain a pace which is aerobically effective.

Mental health initiatives

Research has also shown that workplace physical activity and yoga programmes are associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms and anxiety respectively. This suggests that providing space for employees to engage in such activities — which need not require more than a modicum of financial outlay — offers a cost-effective return on investment for the employer and genuine benefits to participants.

Subsidised fitness or leisure centre membership

Providing subsidised membership of local fitness or leisure facilities — preferably extending to the employee’s family, too — will encourage exercise. Sponsoring regular “work-community” events for employees and their families — such as charitable walks, bike rides, swims, and other sports — will increase ties with the local community, reinforce a positive public image for the employer and improve worker fitness.

Healthy catering

To be healthy, the body must be fuelled by wholesome, nutritious food. Physical and behavioural interventions should be supported by the provision of fresh foods suited to attaining and maintaining a healthy weight, while discouraging the consumption of sugar-laden and processed foods. Guidance from a qualified sports/fitness nutritionist should be obtained to help the catering department develop a healthy menu (including snack foods), and (taking a leaf out of Google’s book here), put the healthy foods “front and centre,” hiding junk foods out of sight (Bon Appetit, 2013).

Further information

Last reviewed 3 August 2015