Here’s how to get your employees moving and exercising

Encouraging staff to say active isn't always easy, but Dr Davina Deniszczyc of Nuffield Health shares a few methods which might help your employees move more.

Physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyles are causing serious health issues for the working population, making this a priority area for employers.

At present, physical inactivity is costing the UK an estimated £7.4 billion a year, through rising long-term health conditions, greater dependency on nursing care and a drop in workplace productivity. If current trends continue, we will be 35 per cent less active as a population by 2030 than we were in the 1960s.

However, all is not lost. Here’s how employers can put the best strategies into practice to get employees moving and exercising.

Sedentary vs inactive: what’s the difference?

A sedentary lifestyle is defined as a type of lifestyle where an individual does not receive regular amounts of physical activity. So, if you sit behind a desk Monday to Friday, then chances are you fall into this category.

Physical inactivity is related to, but not the same thing as sedentary behaviour. Sedentary behaviour is an increasing independent risk factor and if the majority of your day is spent in this way you are still at risk of disease, even if you make the effort to be more active.

It is possible to lead a sedentary life, but still meet physical activity guidance, of course, however it is difficult to achieve this unless someone really increases their activity levels in the evenings, after work or during weekends.

Our research found employers and employees have limited understanding of this difference and many haven’t quite grasped the importance of becoming both less sedentary and more physically active to increase employee health and wellbeing.

With more than 20 million Brits classed as ‘physically inactive’, the risk of health issues such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer is rising.

However, research has shown building up active hours can help people form a better health profile and reverse the negative effects sedentary behaviour has on the body.

Which approach is best?

Research from Nuffield Health found that the majority of literature contains a distinct lack of good evidence and studies which businesses can use to form robust investment cases.

It also reveals that the most effective methods to increase physical activity were found to be workspace-supervised exercise classes and group support.

These methods can work particularly well because they introduce a social element, forming bonds with relatable individuals and giving extra motivation to achieve group health goals.

In terms of techniques to reduce sedentary behaviour, the most effective interventions were investing in active desks and activity prompts. These act as gentle nudges to increase physical movement and gives employees the flexibility to work standing up or sitting down throughout the day.

However, different employee demographics respond better to some methods than others. Under-represented groups are less likely to be meeting physical activity guidelines – including women, lower socioeconomic groups and those with lower levels of educational achievement. They tend to respond best to a combined offline and online multi-component approach to become more active.

Interventions must also be adapted to the type of workplace, depending on the space and resources available, people’s work schedules and whether employees work flexibly or remotely.

How to take the lead

There is a common misconception that for change to occur, leaders must be vocal and bold, giving inspirational speeches to drive the new practice. However, this behaviour will not always achieve the desired result.

Physical activity needs to be ingrained in workplace culture from the top down, with leaders exhibiting a true passion for the change. The process needs to be at the top of every manager’s priorities to develop a new culture for employees and championed by trailblazers on the ground.

However, employers need to approach these ‘personal’ issues sensitively so employees don’t feel like their personal choices or actions are being criticised. Nutrition and exercise may not appear it on the surface but can represent real challenges for some employees.

Businesses need to keep conversations around healthy lifestyles positive, focusing on the benefits increased physical activity can bring, like increasing energy, job performance and emotional resilience both at work and in their personal lives.

Every workplace is different, so a one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t do. Before developing an in-depth plan for intervention, it may be beneficial to conduct a short survey to understand how your employees feel about the proposed methods and which they feel would work best for them personally.

The benefits of an active workforce are clear, and so too are the risks associated with physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour, so organisations and employees have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Dr Davina Deniszczyc is charity director and primary care medical director at Nuffield Health

Further reading on workplace wellbeing: Work over wellbeing: UK professionals struggle to balance work and fitness

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Anna Jordan

Anna is Senior Reporter, covering topics affecting SMEs such as grant funding, managing employees and the day-to-day running of a business.

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