Workplace Challenge: boosting physical activity at work

We spend so much time at work that it has become increasingly important that company culture supports, rather than hinders, physical activity. Lee Mason, chief executive of the County Sports Partnership Network, examines the efforts of Workplace Challenge to tackle the issue of employee inactivity.

Guidelines from the Chief Medical Officer state that adults should try to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity, such as cycling or fast walking, every week to stay healthy – but for the millions of us that spend more time at work than we do at home, it is not always that easy.

Research by the British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health (BHFNC) shows that time is the biggest barrier to sport and activity, especially for busy workers. It seems many of us are so busy working hard, putting in long hours – even sitting in traffic on the daily commute – that we simply don’t have enough hours in the day to exercise. Even more so in the winter months when we are faced with shorter days.

Even for those who do manage to exercise outside of working hours, they may find that their work is completely sedentary, which is also bad for their health.

Workplace Challenge

Workplace Challenge’s activity tracking platform is a free online facility that enables individuals and workplaces to log all of their physical activity, and easily compare activity levels to other participating individuals and organisations.

Active loggers will be able to see a variety of statistics including distance travelled, calories burned, CO2 saved and progress against the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week using a targets bar. It is also possible to set personal targets (linked to fundraising if you wish) and create your “circles” to compare your progress against friends and colleagues. All these features and more are available from your dashboard.

A minimum of three registered employees are required for a workplace to appear in a leaderboard and people can also track their own individual progress locally and nationally.

County Sports Partnerships across England locally manage the online platform for their community, ensuring that there are challenges, activities and competitions available offline to encourage people to stay active.

Workplace Challenge is supported by Sport England through the “Get Healthy Get Active” fund.

County Sports Partnership Network

The County Sports Partnership Network (CSP) Network represents local County Sports Partnership teams across the country.

Collectively, they contribute to the health of the nation by helping local partners, organisations and those who deliver sports to promote the benefits of active lifestyles across local communities.

The CSP Network delivered The Community Games – one of the most successful community campaigns seen in the UK, attracting more than two million people to come together in local communities to take part in active cultural events inspired by the London 2012 Olympics.

Of course, this is not the case for every employer and every employee, but it is a stark reminder of the challenge faced by UK industry. And why should we care? Well, even putting the moral obligations of employers to one side, the impact of inactivity on productivity and profitability is staggering. In fact, the UK’s lack of exercise contributes to sickness absence, reduced productivity and an estimated annual cost of £14.9 billion to businesses in lost working days.

Increase physical activity at work

So how do we tackle the issue of inactivity among busy workers? One initiative aiming to increase physical activity at work is Workplace Challenge, a national workplace health initiative run by the County Sports Partnership Network, which is designed to get people active at work.

Funded by Sport England, Workplace Challenge believes employers can help their workers with support, flexibility and encouragement to bring physical activity into their working day. With management buy-in, it wants employers to focus on flexible working and active lunch breaks – creating a culture where their people are given the invaluable opportunity to exercise without fear of missed pay rises and being frowned upon by colleagues for leaving their desks. And with our support (plus the motivation of their own people, of course), there is no reason why that can’t happen.

Workplace Challenge is run by the County Sports Partnership (CSP) Network and driven locally by individual CSPs, who work with employers to provide inspiration,

opportunities for workplaces to be active and connections to local providers of physical activity and sport.

The activity-tracking platform is a free online facility that enables individuals and workplaces to log their physical activity and easily compare activity levels to other participating individuals and organisations. Active loggers can see a variety of stats including distance travelled, calories burned, CO2 saved and progress against the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week using a targets bar. They can even track progress against other users on local and national leaderboards.

The initiative focuses on regular, high-impact campaigns, which are designed to engage employers and motivate employees. Examples include Shake Up September and Workplace Health Week, both of which have contributed to spikes in the number of individuals and employers signed up to the online logging tool – currently at 56,000 and 9,900 respectively – as well as the number of specific activities logged.

Workplace Health Week also includes Midday Mile, returning in 2017 for a third year, which sees thousands of people across England walk, jog, run or cycle one mile simultaneously on their lunch break.

The key to driving change is in taking small steps. In January, we launched an eight-week “Active Lunch” campaign designed to encourage workers to introduce 10-minute “bite size” chunks of activity in and around their working day to maintain a healthy lifestyle. If time is the biggest barrier, then introducing easy, bite-size activities could be a more achievable solution – whether that is taking the stairs or doing step-ups at the kettle.

Do it together, do it better

At the heart of the Workplace Challenge initiative is group participation. Evidence suggests that people are more likely to see exercise as “normal” if their peers and friends are active too (NICE, 2007). Physical activity is shown to be more enjoyable when completed with friends, family or colleagues (Dunton et al, 2012). A US study also shows that the exercise habits of friends and family affect personal motivation (Darlow, 2011).

Again, this comes back to company culture. Our Flexible Lunch Manifesto urges employers to introduce flexibility into the working day, but this isn’t about creating new rules and formal policies.

We’re simply urging employers to allow their employees more time and opportunity to take part in sport and physical activity during the working week.

The average number of sick days per person per year is 5.31, calculated using data reported in a Nomis Labour Market Profile for England, measuring economic inactivity between July 2014 and June 2015. If we can reduce this figure just by one day by promoting health and wellbeing in the workplace, it could save businesses across England an estimated £2.8 billion.

Great strides have already been made but there is a long way to go. If employers can put physical activity right at the heart of their core values, providing the support, encouragement and the flexibility that employees need to be able to get active, we will all see the benefit.

It would not only help to raise levels of exercise closer towards the Government target, thus improving the health of our working population, but it can also reduce absence through sickness, improve productivity, boost trust, morale and engagement, improve company culture and, ultimately, deliver better results for businesses.

Workplace Challenge in action

Charnwood Borough Council in Leicestershire is one of more than 9,900 organisations to have embraced the Workplace Challenge, leading by example in terms of new users.

After two employees attended Workplace Challenge champion training, they decided to promote the initiative’s eight-week log campaign to all council staff.

Getting firmly behind the Workplace Challenge ethos, Charnwood Borough Council used a range of promotional events and mini competitions to actively recruit new users to the challenge, as well as a series of initiatives to encourage participation.

The first 30 people to sign up to the challenge and log an activity on the website were offered two free gym passes to Fusion gyms.

To encourage individuals to log their activity throughout the eight-week challenge, those that logged at least one activity every week were also entered into a prize draw and a weight-loss initiative with bi-weekly weigh-ins was introduced to motivate and engage users.

The onus was very much on providing opportunities and inspiration for employees to exercise.

A beginner’s running group and lunchtime walks were made available, while the council entered a number of sport competitions including volleyball, wheelchair basketball, netball and kayaking.

A local climbing centre also agreed to do a special induction rate for employees interested in taking part in a lunchtime climb and local leisure centre activities were advertised, including classes, swimming and gym prices.

The council now has 59 active users on Workplace Challenge, who between them have logged more than 5,000 activities, from walking, running and cycling, to boxing, pilates and Zumba. They travelled a combined distance of more than 3,900 miles and saved 375 kg of CO2 in doing so.

Leanne Plummer from Leicestershire and Rutland Sport, the local County Sports Partnership that runs Workplace Challenge in the region, said: “This is a fantastic example of how to encourage participation within a Workplace Challenge campaign period and use that momentum to make a difference to people across the organisation.

“Prizes and incentives were a great way to attract new users and a series of lunchtime sessions worked a treat to remind people to log some activity. Charnwood Borough Council have really embraced the challenge and the figures speak for themselves.”


Darlow SD and Xiaomeng X (2011). “The influence of close others’ exercise habits and perceived social support on exercise”. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, vol.12(5), pp.575-578. May 2011.

Dunton GF, Berrigan D, Ballard-Barbash R, Perna F, Graubard BI and Atienza AA (2012). “Differences in the intensity and duration of adolescents’ sports and exercise across physical and social environments”. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, vol.83(3), pp.376-382. September 2012.

NICE (2007). “Behaviour change: The principles for effective interventions”.

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