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ExerciseDec 17, 2020

Encourage people to exercise at work rather than in their leisure time for greater impact

Public health initiatives should focus on boosting people’s physical activity levels while they are at work, according to an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

A team led by Andreas Holtermann, from the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Copenhagen, Denmark, calls for a shift away from the traditional approach of encouraging people to be more active in their leisure time.

 

 

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Slaughterhouse workers' back pain subsided after they exercised during short breaks

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After all, Professor Holtermann and his colleagues argue, people typically spend almost half their waking hours in the workplace – potentially offering a large ‘time bank’ to exploit.

       Why promote physical activity in the workplace?

  • almost half of working-age adults’ waking hours is spent there
  • they can offer the structure, environment and social setting needed to improve physical activity levels in a sustainable
  • employers benefit from improved productivity levels, less sickness absence and reduced work disability-related costs

Too often, workplace physical activity initiatives fail when programmes are abandoned due to financial pressures, the authors note. Many initiatives become ‘nice to have’ additions to productive work, tending to target individual workers’ health rather than showing how the company benefits from its investment.

‘Employers need evidence of benefit to financially support ongoing physical activity programmes,’ the editorial states.

Success stories

  •        ‘fit for the job’: ‘significant improvements’ in levels of cardiovascular fitness and health were found among a group of low-paid cleaning staff when a regular exercise programme was integrated into their paid working hours
  •        strengthening exercises for musculoskeletal health: using a participatory approach, slaughterhouse workers and others reported having less musculoskeletal pain after they used elastic tubes in strengthening exercises during short work breaks
  •        In Copenhagen, a ‘fit for work’ programme offered hundreds of healthcare workers opportunities to exercise during their paid working hours. But piloting showed that these were not prioritised because of time constraints and were not seen as a ‘core work task’. In response, in 2017 the municipality made physical exercise a compulsory work task for one hour a week and a part of the employment agreement

Researchers and practitioners should use participatory and intervention mapping techniques if they are to succeed. Employees and company managers should come together at an early stage – perhaps in workshops – to develop, plan and implement activity programmes.

‘This approach is the bedrock of workplace physical activity promotion and so should not be compromised in the future.’

In a time of health and financial crisis, businesses and the society as a whole need a productive, fit and healthy working population [the authors state]

The authors call for the adoption of a systematic, co-production approach using what they term the ‘Goldilocks Work Principle’. In one initiative in which the authors were involved, instead of childcare workers taking time away from productive work to exercise, they became ‘active role models’ in specially designed ‘goldilocks-games’ that improved physical activities for the children.

‘In a time of health and financial crisis, businesses and the society as a whole need a productive, fit and healthy working population.

‘To succeed, we encourage researchers and practitioners to design and implement workplace health-enhancing physical activity so they gain sustainable organisational support, have potential for scale-up and hence have an impact on workers’ health,’ the authors conclude.

Professor Holtermann’s co-authors are Leon Straker, I-Min Lee, Emmanuel Stamatakis and Allard J van der Beek

To see the full version of the article, Workplace physical activity promotion: why so many failures and few successes? The need for new thinking, visit: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2020-103067

Author: Ian A McMillan
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