From the rising popularity of calorie burning apps to quirky new exercise classes like hula-hooping and aqua spin, the health and fitness revolution is well and truly upon us. And with the global fitness tracker market expected to be worth 2,128 million (£48,000 million) by 2023, this wellness trend is showing no signs of slowing. But how does health and fitness impact on people’s working lives?
THE EXERCISE FACTOR
In addition to improving people’s general health, regular exercise can reduce the risk of serious illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer by up to 50%, as well as lowering the risk of early death by 30%. But keeping fit offers more than just the obvious health benefits. Research shows that exercise can boost mental health, and is often part of the treatment plan for mild cases of anxiety, depression and other conditions. In the workplace, it can help employees to feel bright, happier and more engaged, thanks to the endorphins it triggers. Intense exercise also releases a chemical known as a brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which rewires memory circuits and leads to improved concentration. To gain cognitive benefits, exercise regimes need to be vigorous, raising a person’s heart rate to 70% of its maximum, so it’s important for people to push and challenge themselves where possible. With so much more awareness about the benefits of physical activity, it’s no surprise that 40% of businesses now have a wellness strategy in place, while a further 35% are looking to implement one in the next few years. But although these strategies are supporting lifestyle changes, companies need to ensure that health benefits are not just a choice, but the easiest option.
While there’s no denying that exercise brings numerous benefits both for your work, personal life and health, it seems the growing popularity of wellness trends and heightened awareness isn’t enough to get us moving, with studies showing that most people in the UK and the US aren’t doing enough. The NHS recommends that healthy adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity every week, as well as twice weekly strength building exercises like yoga, weight training or Pilates. But according to a survey by Arthritis UK, only 18% of Brits are exercising every day and one in five never exercises at all. Meanwhile, in the US, research by CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics shows that just 23% of Americans are meeting the minimum recommended fitness guidelines.
For businesses, inactivity can be extremely damaging, leading to a less productive work environment and unhappy employees. In fact, the cost of an unhealthy workforce has been estimated at more than £60 billion per year to UK taxpayers, as obesity levels continue to rise. In 2017 an estimated 12.5 million days were lost due to poor mental health, accounting for £26 billion in lost revenue.
By contrast, it’s been proven that companies with a work environment that encourages activity to see a reduction of stress and overall improvements to staff wellbeing. A study conducted in Liverpool showed that active employees take 27% less sick days, while companies who integrated exercise into their wellness programmes benefited from better morale, lower staff turnover, as well as improved teamwork and communication.
Although the benefits are clear, companies face numerous challenges when it comes to introducing fitness initiatives. Many office-based jobs are sedentary and require people to sit at desks for long periods. And as we try to pack more and more into our days and balance busy family lives, it becomes difficult for staff members to carve out time for exercise and wellbeing. Confidence can also be a challenge, as many people feel self-conscious about their lack of fitness or embarrassed by an unhealthy diet, making them shy away from exercise routines or joint fitness activities. Figures show that up 36% of men and 65% women avoid the gym for fear of being negatively judged, so it’s important that organisations introduce exercise initiatives that don’t alienate employees.
INCORPORATING EXERCISE INTO WORKING LIFE
Making fitness part of daily routines isn’t just about offering discounted gym memberships or telling staff how much exercise they should be doing. To see real change you need to rewire the way people feel about exercise, and make it easy to adopt these habits regularly.
For example, while discounted membership at local gyms will encourage some people to get active, it’s more likely to influence those who are already engaged with fitness. A better approach might be to offer lunchtime fitness or yoga in your offices, so that people can go straight from their desk to their class, without having to stay late after work or coordinate transport. Provided you have showers available so that people can get washed and changed, it makes regular exercise a much easier and more attractive option. Companies should also be mindful of people’s different fitness levels, offering plenty of beginner options for those who feel they won’t be able to keep up with a regular class.
Another way to get people moving is to encourage employees to make small changes to their routines, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift, walking to the shops for lunch instead of driving and cycling incentives. The use of standing desks has also become increasingly popular, to try to mitigate the risks of sitting for long periods. Although these have been controversial for some, they’ve sparked the rise of other exercise machines in the office. Whether it’s going through a presentation while walking on a treadmill or cycling for an hour while you send some emails, the range of ‘active’ desks has never been greater. According to a US study, physical activity breaks and flexi-time for exercise are among the most successful workplace initiatives to get people moving, while health services such as fitness testing and nutritional counselling are also popular with staff. Essentially the more options available at work, the more likely employers are to see uptake.
Exercise doesn’t just keep people fit, it also encourages team building and engagement. As well as running company sports teams for football, rugby, netball and hockey enthusiasts, businesses can branch out by organising active team-based activities for less sporty employees. Competitive events like Tough Mudder and local fun runs will drag people away from their desks and get colleagues cheering and supporting each other. Another way to get people active is to integrate an exercise element into monthly team building activities. Instead of running sessions that only encourage people to think, consider introducing an active treasure hunt or orienteering activity that will get your employees to engage their brains whilst they move.
Technology can help your employees to support and develop their goals, from fitness bands that count steps to activity trackers and healthy recipe apps. Although some team members may respond well to competitive activities (such as a leaderboard for most steps taken) others will find this off-putting, so make sure you have an opt-out for those who would rather improve their health quietly. In the future we may even be able to use tech for immersive exercise options, using VR to create mountain runs or cycling through beautiful valleys- without leaving the office.
Whether it’s a weekly swim or training for a marathon, fitness is about personal achievement. When it comes to introducing new exercise initiatives, companies will benefit from including their employees to get insight into what they really want. Ultimately businesses need to foster an inclusive and diverse programme to attract as many people as possible and improve the overall health and wellbeing of their employees at work.