- Advantages of exercising
- Importance of exercise at work
- The business case for promoting exercise at work
- Regulations and guidelines
- Promoting movement in the workplace
- Improving sitting and standing and making it dynamic
- Examples of exercise
- Teleworking tips
- Further reading
Prolonged sitting and prolonged standing are related to various health risks. To reduce the risks individuals need to adopt healthy working routines. This means a healthier life style and healthier behaviour at work, together with organisations that promote and facilitate healthier working. Movement and exercise are an important part of tackling a sedentary lifestyle and an important musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) prevention measure. There is growing evidence that workplace physical activity interventions can also positively influence physical activity behaviour. Thirteen percent of physical activities take place at work and employers are considered to be in a good position to raise awareness and empower workers to be active in the workplace through a range of interventions. For this reason, the European Commission and Member States are promoting physical activity at the workplace.
The following describes why exercising is an MSD prevention measure, and not just a health promotion exercise.
Take away static load, improve blood flow
Studies in work physiology have shown that static load (e.g. standing or sitting in a fixed position) as opposed to dynamic muscle use results in longer recuperation times. The lack of movement reduces the muscular activity and leads sooner or later to tension, in short:
- lack of movement places a higher load on the intervertebral discs;
- lack of movement impairs circulation of the blood and the supply of oxygen to muscles and organs.
Sedentary work and lifestyles are also associated with other health effects including diabetes II and cardiovascular health. Being too long in a fixed posture can provoke pain in workers with arthritic or rheumatic conditions.
Your best posture is your next posture
Work, workstations and the workplace should be designed with motion in mind. The body is not ‘designed’ for static postures over sustained periods of time. People are not designed to sit in a chair and look at a monitor all day. The body needs movement. Remember: “Your best posture is your next posture. And: “People must find ways to interject movement into each day"
The advantages of alternating postures and more dynamic work are clear. Goals are:
- Preventing shortening of the thigh muscles – a known problem for habitual sitters
- Easing the return of blood to the heart and stimulating blood circulation
- Keeping intervertebral discs in better shape by nourishing them
- Preventing or reducing vein weaknesses and varicose veins
Besides the positive health effect of being more dynamic during work at the working day, there is also growing attention to the positive effect of doing exercises during the workday. A workout or short exercising at work may improve job performance, productivity, job satisfaction and health.
Importance of promoting moving and exercise at work
Promoting exercise is an MSD prevention measure as well, not just a health promotion exercise. Health risks associated with sedentary work cannot be fully compensated for by physical exercise in leisure time. Thereby, it is important to spread out exercise during the day, including exercise at work, rather than doing it all in one session. It is considered that a large percentage of workers do not exercise sufficiently during leisure time and work time. This has an adverse effect on workers’ health and can result in costs due to sick leave. While this may seem to be an individual matter, employers can inject more movement and exercise into the daily work routine as well as encourage exercise during free time.
One study found that leisure-time exercise levels were higher among workers who had access to some combination of the following facilities at or near work: a pleasant place to walk, playing fields, a gym, fitness classes, organised team sports, showers/change rooms and programmes to improve health. So, investing in exercise at work also has a positive effect on exercise during leisure time. Adults performing a full time job spend on average about one-third of their waking hours at work, so the workplace is an important place for raising awareness concerning being active and mobile. There are various ways to promote exercise at work and there is growing evidence that workplace physical activity interventions can positively influence physical activity behaviour more generally.
Investing in the health of workers can also bring business benefits such as reduced sickness absence, increased loyalty, improved working and better staff retention. While is little data available about the specific costs and revenues of promoting exercise at work, the scientific evidence that such programmes are effective is limited, and there is data about health promotion in general. A European report ‘Promoting active aging in the workplace’ states that it pays to invest in promoting health and thus working capacity. A 1-euro investment (in health promotion activities) yields 3 to 5 euros after a number of years (reduced sickness absence and increased productivity).
According to calculations by TNO, paying the wage of a sick employee costs an average of 230 euros per day. Companies can achieve substantial savings if they can reduce sick leave. Organisations with a focus on health also have workers who are up to 44% more satisfied and committed to their job, compared to companies that do not yet have anything to do with this. Beside this, studies show that workers in countries and sectors where more preventive measures are in place, are less likely to report musculoskeletal complaints. The percentage of workers reporting back pain drops from 51% for workers in countries and sectors where on average between 1 and 3 preventive measures are in place, to 31% for workers in countries and sectors where on average between 5 and 6 preventive measures are in place. The prevalence of MSDs in lower limbs shows a comparable improvement, from 35% (for workers in countries and sectors where on average between 1 and 3 preventive measures are in place) down to 20% (for workers in countries and sectors where on average between 5 and 6 preventive measures are in place.
It should be noted that physical exercise implies a structured, more or less regular, leisure-time pursuit, whereas physical activity also arises in domestic or occupational tasks.
Guidelines on physical exercise in leisure time
To promote and maintain health, all healthy adults aged 18 to 65 year need moderate-intensity aerobic (endurance) physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes on five days each week or vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity for a minimum of 20 minutes on three days each week.
This is in addition to routine activities of daily living of light intensity (e.g. self-care, cooking, casual walking or shopping) or activities of daily living of moderate intensity lasting less than 10 minutes in duration (e.g. walking around home or office, walking from the car park). Despite the known benefits of regular exercise, over half of adults fall short of getting the recommended physical activity a week. Recognising that most working-age adults spend a third or more of their day at work, employers can play a role in promoting exercise among their workers. One study found that leisure-time exercise levels were higher among workers who had access to a combination of the following facilities at or near work: a pleasant place to walk, playing fields, a gym, fitness classes, team sports, showers/changing rooms and programmes to improve health. Indeed, off-work exercise levels were twice as high among workers with access to all of these workplace facilities as they were among workers with access to none of them.
More guidelines on physical exercise are described in “Recommendations and interventions to decrease physical inactivity".
Regulations and guidelines on physical activity at work
There is no European or international legislation concerning physical activity promotion at the workplace. However, there are national initiatives regarding guidelines in Norway, Germany, Poland and The Netherlands. In addition, the European Council promotes physical activity through the workplace, and according to its recommendation on promoting health-enhancing physical activity, physical activity is a prerequisite for a healthy workforce.
Reduce sedentary time
Facilitating movement and exercise can form part of measures to prevent risks from prolonged static postures at work.
The general advice is to alternate the sedentary time with non-seated activities. Preliminary guidelines are:
- Spend 50% or less of your work day sitting
- Avoid prolonged periods of sitting – aim to take a micro break and get up at least every 20-30 minutes
- Always get up after 2 hours of sitting for at least 10 minutes
Reduce standing time
The general advice regarding standing time is:
- Avoid standing still for more than 1 hour on the same spot
- Avoid standing at your work station for more than 4 hours a day
Some of the most successful examples of workplace physical activity interventions are those which allow movement and physical activity to become embedded in the company’s culture and daily practices.
Simple steps employers can take to encourage movement and change of culture
There are various ways to promote movement and exercise during the day. The UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has published an extensive guide to help employers prevent the diseases associated with a lack of physical activity.
The guidelines advocate a systematic approach, including the development of an organisation-wide plan or policy to encourage and support employees to be more physically active, which should:
- include measures to maximise the opportunity for all employees to participate;
- be based on consultation with staff and should ensure they are involved in planning and design, as well as monitoring activities, on an ongoing basis;
- be supported by management and have dedicated resources;
- set organisational goals and be linked to other relevant internal policies (for example, on alcohol, smoking, occupational health and safety, flexible working or travel);
- link to relevant national and local policies (for example, on health or transport).
The guide also provides advice for how others such as public health organisations and professionals, organisations concerned with increasing physical activity, trade unions and business associations can promote action. The Australian initiative BeUpstanding also provides practical advice and tools for taking a planned approach.
Within or in addition to this comprehensive approach, there are small steps every employer could take to promote movement in the workplace:
Create an environment and culture that supports physical activity:
- Show leadership and commitment.
- Design work, workstations and the workplace with motion in mind. The body is not designed for static postures over sustained periods of time.
- An easy way to add more movement to the day is to see whether sit-stand desks are an option at your workplace. (However, remind workers to alternate between standing and sitting throughout the day since standing too much can lead to lower back problems over time, and they still need to move as well).
- Provide good seating which allows posture change.
- For secondary work, such as reading and writing, provide secondary work surfaces, so workers can perform these tasks while standing.
- Removing redundant shared resources (e.g. policy manuals, reference books, procurement catalogues, phone books) from individual workstations and locate them in common resource areas.
- Purchase cordless telephones so that employees can walk during phone calls.
- Introduce stretching into meetings and encourage workers to get up and move, stretch if needed during meetings – build short breaks into long meetings – shorten meetings.
- Provide good seating which allows posture change.
- Encourage and support open conversations about health and early reporting of MSD symptoms and other health problems.
- Ensure workers know how to access occupational health services.
- Review individual needs and make reasonable adjustments and adaptations to workers’ work.
- Actively support workers’ physical health.
Motivate and encourage workers:
- Encourage workers to take short breaks or micro breaks.
- Encourage workers to walk, cycle or use other modes of transport involving physical activity (to travel to and from work and as part of their working day).
- Help workers to be physically active during the working day by:
- +encouraging workers to move around more at work
- encouraging workers to use the stairs rather than the lift if they can
- providing information about walking and cycling routes
- encouraging workers to perform exercises during work
- encouraging regular breaks for people in uncomfortable working positions
- encouraging workers to take short walks during work breaks
- encouraging workers to set goals on how far they walk and cycle
- Encourage senior staff and line managers to lead by example.
- Make workers aware of information, support and programmes that promote increased physical activity, healthier weight and healthy eating.
- Encourage active travel: There is some limited evidence that active travel interventions can have a positive effect on physical activity levels. Encouraged workers to take an alternative, more active commute to work such as running, walking or cycling to work rather than taking the car, bus or train. Or even just getting of the bus or metro one stop earlier.
- Obtain the support of workers by: engaging them from the beginning; appointing workplace champions who can help spread the word; reporting back regularly to workers.
Increasing walking, both within the office and through workplace challenges, is a realistic workplace activity as it is both low cost and low intensity. Walking interventions initiated in the workplace appear to be one of the most common interventions among the studies of individual interventions. There is also generally consistent and strong evidence that walking interventions initiated in the workplace have successful outcomes at least in the short-term. Walk@Work Spain is a feasible and effective evidence-based intervention that can be successfully deployed with sedentary workers to elicit sustained changes on “sitting less and moving more". According to Stanford University research, creative thinking improves while walking and shortly thereafter - so remember to take several of these mental breaks during the day.
Initiatives to encourage physical activity should be connected and integrated into a whole system approach to health and wellbeing at work, encompassing both physical and mental health.
A three-pronged approach is recommended:
1. Culture: Encourage a work culture which engages workers and promotes positive lifestyle choices.
2. Environment: Create a space which encourages physical activity.
Support: Signpost workers to more information and opportunities, encourage feedback and actively support healthier choices and address weight issues in a non-stigmatising way.
Promoting exercise and movement should be complementary to improving the ergonomic conditions of sitting and standing work, not an alternative. As well as providing ergonomic workstations, seating etc., more active or dynamic ways of working while sitting and standing are needed.
There are many ways to sit…
When thinking about ‘my best posture is my next posture, remember that there are many types of sitting (leaning forward, leaning backward, leaning sideways, on a chair, on a stool, pelvis tilted forward with back support, pelvis tilted backwards without back support), therefore, try to find sufficient variation not only between sitting, walking and standing but also within sitting.
There are many ways to stand…
When thinking about ‘my best posture is my next posture’, remember that there are many types of standing (leaning on the left leg, leaning on the right leg, shifting weight from one leg to another, using a stool, making small steps on the spot), therefore, try to find sufficient variation not only between sitting, walking and standing but also within standing. If you vary how you stand your leg muscles will contract and so enhance your blood flow and so you reduce the effects of static load on your legs.
As mentioned, sit-stand desks can be useful if, but use of a sit-stand desk on its own is not enough as you are alternating between two static postures, although it does also allow the worker to adjust the desk to exactly the right height for sitting and an option for perching as well, if a perching stool is provided. Also some workers may find standing problematic, e.g. due to arthritis or sciatica.
Encourage workers to perform stretch exercises at regular intervals throughout the day, even if they are just for a minute. Examples:
- Lift the arms above your head and do arm circles.
- Shrug the shoulders and roll them backwards and forwards a few times.
- Roll the neck gently from left to right, focusing on tight spots.
- Roll the ankles, point your toes, and flex your feet.
- Stretch the hip flexors by pointing one knee at the floor and pushing the hips forward.
- Lean back in the chair and push your upper arms back onto the chair to stretch the chest and shoulders.
- Clasp the hands behind your chair and stretch the shoulders backward.
Sitting and standing exercises
Encourage workers to perform simple exercises during the day. The following simple exercises can be done during the day. Workers can keep themselves moving and active throughout the workday.
- Squeeze your buttocks for 5-10 seconds.
- Use a hand gripper to work out your hands and forearms
- Do bicep curls with a heavy stapler or full water bottle
- Swivel in your chair for an ab workout
- Do leg raises under your desk
- Squat over your chair for 15-30 seconds
- Raise yourself above your chair using your arms
- Do leg lifts while taking a coffee break
- Do incline push ups while you wait for the printer
- Do one-legged squats while you wait for the printer
- Do calf raises for one minute
- Do wall sits for 30-60 seconds
Examples of exercising that can be added to work routine
Educating and encouraging workers to modify work habits and individual behaviours can prompt them to change daily habits. There are many simple activities that workers can be encouraged to do throughout the day:
- Stand up or walk during phone calls if you have hand free phones.
- Have standing up or walking meetings rather than sit-down meetings.
- Eat your lunch away from your desk.
- Use breaks to move. Walk during lunch breaks and during down times.
- Walk to your colleague's desk instead of phoning or emailing them.
- Take stairs, rather than the elevator for short jaunts or taking breaks to walk the stairs for five to 10 minutes.
- Park your car away from the office entrance
- Incorporate micro-breaks into how you work: take a break from your computer and stand up and stretch at your desk for 20 to 30 seconds every 20 to 30 minutes.
- Set the countdown timer on your phone as a breaks reminder.
- Park your car away from the office entrance
- Make your commute more active, such as running, walking or cycling to work rather than taking the car, bus or train. Or getting off the bus or Metro one-stop earlier.
- Add a minimum of 10 minutes of moderate or vigorous intensity aerobic exercise to the day, which is enough to get the heart pumping and burn calories.
- Stand at the back of the room during presentations.
- Use a sitting calculator and change your sedentary behaviour if needed.
- Use ‘screen breaks’ app, timer on your smart phone etc. as a reminder.
- If you have one, use your adjustable working station for both working standing up and seated.
- If you have a printer or rubbish bin in your office, remove them away from your desk. Use common areas instead.
- Put your mobile phone out of arms reach.
- Add more short breaks or micro breaks to your workday.
- Agree on a maximum time slot for sedentary work exposure, for instance: a maximum of 2 consecutive hours and no more than 5 hours per shift.
Promoting exercise during work is important for workers’ health. To ensure that your staff will also move during working hours, different approaches are possible, both individually and in groups.
- Talk to your worker about health and exercise and investigate how the worker can be supported.
- Inform workers about the importance of dynamic work, moving during the day and performing exercises.
- Hand out flyers, use posters and use one of the available free programmes that are accessible through the internet.
- Fit the examples of exercises into a personal workers programme.
- Make active behaviour a part of performance interviews.
1.1.2 Group approach
Group activities, challenges and campaigns are also a good way to encourage exercise at work. Challenges and campaigns are impulses that briefly lead to attention for more exercise, but the new behaviour must be guaranteed in the daily routine. Group activities contribute to team building, improving motivation, inspiration and productivity.
There are small and large initiatives that can be implemented in groups. An easy to implement activity is lunch walking. Lunchtime walking is the ideal opportunity to stretch your legs with colleagues. In addition, lunch walking is easily accessible. Almost everyone can do it, no special facilities or equipment are needed and the hiking trail is already ready. Running together (under guidance of a trainer) is also a possibility to move more during the day.
Challenges are activities that encourage workers to become happier, healthier and more energetic at work. There are many challenges to come up with, such as: do as many burpees (squat thrusts) as you can in 1 minute, step count challenges, move like the manager, exercise for 30 minutes every day, do a planking exercise for at least 1 minute, dance.
As mentioned, promoting movement and exercise at work should be based on the staff consultation and participation, ensuring they are involved in planning and design, as well as monitoring activities, on an ongoing basis. A participatory approach, relies on actively involving the workers in planning and controlling a significant amount of their own work activities, and implementing ergonomic knowledge, procedures and changes with the intention to improve working conditions, safety, productivity, quality and comfort. There is evidence that using participatory approach interventions may reduce work-related MSDs.
As a first step, employers can organise a survey or meeting to discuss the moving at work and get ideas. The aforementioned Australian initiative BeUpstanding provides practical tools for worker surveys or how to organise workplace discussions. EU-OSHA has produced some workplace group discussion activities for use with short, amusing film clips using the cartoon character Napo. Two of these relate to incorporating more movement into work.
Devices and apps
Technology is transforming the way we engage with physical activity. More people are using wearable devices to track their daily behaviour and to make adjustments in the quest for a healthier lifestyle. Apps can help to improve movement during the day.
- Public Health England has created the Active 10 app as part of their physical activity campaign which encourages people, particularly those on the lower end of the activity spectrum, to undertake 30 minutes of brisk walking throughout the day.
- The Standapp reminds the user to get up and gives various exercises that can be performed during standing
- Accupedo is an accurate pedometer app that monitors your daily walking on the home screen of your phone
- Sitting time calculators are used to show how much one is sitting and to learn whether one is at risk of sitting disease
Teleworking is becoming increasingly common and there may be an even greater tendency to sit for too long when teleworking. Three principles for staying active and healthy when teleworking are: setting up a proper work environment; taking active break: and moving more while sitting
Tips for sitting less and moving more when working from home include:
- Take advantage of the opportunity to wear comfortable clothing you can move easily in
- Take regular breaks during the day to get out of your chair and move around. Whether that’s to make a cup of tea or simply walk up and down the stairs a couple of times, it will help you stretch, relax and refresh, and be ready to concentrate again. Do some exercises while you wait for the kettle to boil.
- Set reminders on your phone or computer to take micro-breaks and get up and stretch every 20 to 30 minutes
- Put your mobile phone away from your desk
- Take a walk around your garden. If you have a dog, have a run around the yard with them as a break. Take out the rubbish as a break. If you live in an apartment block, walk back up the stairs
- Do a small house household task. This gives you a sitting break and has you moving as well
- Since your home is more private than an office environment, it is easy to do some stretching, yoga, a few strength exercises, jogging on the spot, push ups, or jumping jacks during a break of a few minutes
- On a conference call, if your camera is turned off and you have a wireless headphone and mic, you have much more freedom to move around, stretch and adopt different postures than in an office meeting
- Suggest scheduling a standing break at the start middle and end of online meetings, so everyone gets up for a few seconds. Such breaks can be made part of remote meeting etiquette
- Get out and go for a walk around your neighbourhood during your lunch break
- Invest in a height-adjustable standing desk converter that can turn any ordinary desk into a sit-to-stand desk. Some low-cost home furnishing stores sell reasonably priced sit-stand desks
- Avoid eating lunch at your desk
- Move more whilst sitting, fidget in your seat, stretch a little, turn your head occasionally
- Treat exercise with the same priority as a work phone call. Blocking out time away from your desk means that you are more likely to do it
- Are there different ways you could work for short periods, other than sitting at your desk the whole time?
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- Be Upstanding is a free toolkit for getting workplaces to stand up, sit less and move more
- Up and Down – Up and Down, How dynamic sitting and standing can improve health in the office
- EU-OSHA Research on MSDs. This web page includes a section on static postures, where links to relevant resources will be added