Fit for work? How to get sedentary workers on their feet

Employers need to be more proactive about overly sedentary working lives

Fit in 50 is a new booklet designed to offer practical and accessible exercises to get sedentary employers out of their chairs and away from their screens, and has already been adopted by a number of NHS trusts and big-name employers such as Volvo. Co-author Chris Packham explains how it came about.

The significant costs of sickness absence because of sedentary lifestyles within the UK are well-documented. In 2016, musculoskeletal problems, including back pain, neck and upper limb problems accounted for 30.8 million days sickness absence within the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Of course, many of these are likely to have been related to manual-handing issues. Nevertheless, a significant number are also likely to have coming back to office-based and increasingly sedentary lifestyle, both at work and in leisure time. With advances in technology in recent years, a growing number of workers have been recruited into office-based sedentary employment.

This is where Fit In 50 comes into play. Fit In 50 is a wellbeing initiative created by myself (and I am a physiotherapy exercise instructor) and Dan Gunning, a colleague who has worked in the IT industry for many years and, as such, is fully aware of the negative effects of this sedentary-based lifestyles.

Simple office-based exercises

The Fit in 50 booklet outlines a range of simple office-based exercises that sedentary workers can perform hourly and sets out in a 14-day plan. I am pleased to say that, as reported in Occupational Health and Wellbeing in May, it has already sold more than 1,000 copies and Dan and I have also been approached by NHS Employers to write a monthly blog offering tips and advice on how to stay active.

This article intends to look at how the booklet came about, what is in it and, most importantly, the practical effects and benefits in can bring, using examples of it in action from our work with Volvo Group UK and the NHS.

There wasn’t one specific “trigger” or event that kickstarted the booklet. Certainly, conversations we had did feed in, such as Dan saying to me: “My office lifestyle consists of spending over an hour a day in my car, to then sit at my desk when the only time I move is to go for a coffee or nip to the loo. When I get home, all I do is sit (again) and watch TV… I can see how this is affecting me both physically and mentally!”

I imagine many of you – even OH practitioners who should, of course, know better! – can relate to this lifestyle. It is all too easy to get sucked into a predominantly seated working and leisure lifestyle.

For me, over the past 10 years, I had witnessed a concerning decline in the health and wellbeing of both NHS patients and staff. Throughout this period, I had noticed an increase in the number of individuals working within an office-based environment who were coming to me with its consequent issues, including:

  • postural related conditions (back, neck, shoulder pain);
  • weight gain; and
  • work-related stress and anxiety

So, what was is solution? Quite simply, the answer is exercise. As NHS Choices puts it (quoting health promotion consultant Dr Nick Cavill): “If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented.”

Encouraging employees to move more throughout the day is the key to reducing the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Workloads, job expectancies and sitting for long periods are an inevitable part of modern office environments, so promoting effective wellbeing and exercise interventions within organisations are essential.

Participating in minimal amounts of regular exercise is the most effective intervention for increasing metabolism, improving joint health and promoting good posture. Furthermore, with the release of endorphins, exercise promotes improved mood, enhanced energy levels and reduced stress/ anxiety. This will inevitably lead to enhanced job satisfaction, reduced absenteeism and improved work productivity.

Barriers to exercise

As a society, we have all the exercise advice we need. There are 100s of exercise books, classes, mobile phone apps and DVDs out there. Yet, for whatever reason, we are not getting fitter; in fact we are getting unhealthier. Why? Despite all the advice, there are three key reasons (or excuses) people give for not participating in exercise: time, boredom and cost. Let’s look at each in turn.

  • Time. When Dan first approached me regarding his office lifestyle concerns, my solution was to advise him simply to sign up to and use the gym. Or go for a jog. Or attend an exercise class after work. All to which, Dan replied: “I don’t have time, I have a family and other commitments outside of my workplace”. Again, sounds familiar? Many of my NHS patients have the same issue (time) when it comes to completing their rehabilitation exercise programmes. As Dan also put it: “You have been at work all day, there’s the long drive home in rush-hour traffic and you want to spend time with you loved ones or go out and socialise. Do you really want to spend an hour at the gym? No, not really.”
  • Boredom. Even if, intellectually, we recognise exercise is good for us, the truth of the matter is that pounding away on a treadmill or jogging round streets or the local park of an evening can be boring. As Chris made clear, for all of us with our busy lives, who wants to spend half an hour on a treadmill or exercise bike?
  • Cost. So you’re pushed for time and it’s not something you find particularly enjoyable. Let’s also get you to pay through the nose for the privilege! Gym membership can be expensive (especially if you don’t then use it frequently) and even relatively low-cost exercise (like jogging) can still involve an investment in, say, good-quality running shoes and reflective clothing.

It was hearing these reasons (or excuses) being cited again and again that inspired the creation of Fit In 50. We wanted to design an initiative to help people overcome these barriers to exercise.

Fit In 50 is therefore designed to work with office-based employees, to work around their working day. The 32-page booklet guides employees through a 14-day plan with an aim to promoting independent exercise and improved nutritional habits.

The exercises require no specific equipment and can be performed easily at the employees work desk station. The nutrition advice consists of five simple rules; there are no fad diets and even allows for one treat per day!

The employees should, in turn, feel more productive, engaged and have an enhanced sense of wellbeing. This, in turn, should contribute towards reduced sickness absence and increased work productivity.

Assessing the booklet’s impact

But does Fit in 50 work in practice, and what impact does it have?

The booklet took more than two years of careful design and planning, and was released in January of this year. Volvo Group UK and several NHS trusts have already purchased it for their office-based employees (see panel below). And, I am pleased to say, the subsequent feedback has been fantastic.

Finally, Fit In 50, I would also argue, is an excellent tool for developing team morale as well as individual wellbeing. For example, it allows workers to performing the exercises together, and therefore often means they are engaging with colleagues they may not otherwise know or communicate with. This in itself can create a very positive environment, which can only be beneficial for work productivity and performance.

How Fit in 50 has worked on the ground

Following a successful trial, Volvo Group UK was one of the first organisations to purchase Fit In 50 as a way to give their sedentary employees tools to promote health and wellbeing. It was followed by launches of the booklet within several NHS trusts across England, which were looking to implement staff health and wellbeing indicators of the Commissioning for Quality and Innovation (CQUIN) framework.

Initial results of feedback from both implementations has been that:

  • 100% of employees questioned said they had successfully made positive changes to their office lifestyle because of Fit In 50
  • 89% said the booklet had effectively helped to form new exercise and nutritional habits
  • 90% felt Fit In 50 had been an effective intervention to relieve stress and improve wellbeing
  •  100% expressed a new awareness of their previous sedentary lifestyle, and felt Fit In 50 had helped combat its negative effects

Separately, research by Volvo Group has concluded that an employee’s concentration significantly decreases after working at a screen for more than 50 minutes. Such “screen fatigue” can have a significant effect on work productivity. Yet Volvo has also found that Fit In 50 can help by encouraging employees temporarily to remove their focus away from their screen at regular intervals throughout the day.

As Danny Nussbaum, HR director at Volvo Group UK, has said, Fit In 50 provides, “uncomplicated exercises that are easy to perform in most office environments. Was fun to do as a group, and brought the team more-closer together by doing it. A great start and will continue.”

Another valuable testimonial has come from Liz Cathcart, head of staff engagement at Coventry and Warwickshire Partnership NHS Trust, who has said: “Fit in 50 has been very well received with our staff. Wellbeing of our people is key to us providing good services for our clients/patients.

“We have been out at different locations, promoting self-care, and have been giving out the brochure at these events. We do wellbeing days where we provide body MOTs, cholesterol check etc, and the booklets have been exceptionally good to give out in areas where our people are predominantly office-based.”

Most recently, we have been invited by Coventry City Council to perform an exercise and nutrition workshop for it as part of the Workplace Wellbeing Charter Awards.

How to get hold of Fit in 50

Since its release I have has been asked on several occasions if Fit in 50 will be available as a digital online resource. The answer is very simple: “no!”.

As Dan says: “People spend all day looking at screens; a laptop, monitor, tablet or mobile phone. We wanted our plan to be a paper version, as this temporarily removes their attention away from their screen for a minute or so at regular intervals.”

Although it only costs from £3 per person, Fit In 50 is not available to buy as a single copy. We strongly believe it should be perceived by employers as something they invest in as a corporate responsibility, to provide their employees across the board with sufficient advice to combat the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

For more details, however, please email enquiries@fitin50.co.uk

Reference

‘Total of 137 million working days lost to sickness and injury in 2016’, Office for National Statistics, 09 March, 2017, https://www.ons.gov.uk/news/news/totalof137millionworkingdayslosttosicknessandinjuryin2016

About Chris Packham and Dan Gunning

Chris Packham is a physiotherapy exercise Instructor within the NHS, while his co-author Dan Gunning is an information systems manager.
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