Work life
Date created: 24/07/2017
Lasted reviewed: 08/07/2022

Active at work

How to help your staff move more

woman stretching in chair at desk in front of windows

Health advice and fads come and go, but one thing that never changes is the fact that a healthy body depends on physical activity. The good news is that even if your employees are desk-based, you can help them make movement a bigger part of their day.

woman stretching in chair at desk

The equation is simple: for better health, move more. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a minimum of 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity per week1. However, according to the Active Lives Adult Survey, which gathered information from over 175,000 respondents between November 2020 and November 2021, only around six in 10 adults in the UK (28 million) achieved their 150+ minutes of activity per week2.

COVID-19 restrictions during this time clearly impacted many people’s fitness routines and access to gyms and health centres. As well as this, sedentary jobs, screen-based entertainment, and labour-saving technological innovations, have all contributed to the decline seen in adult physical activity.

As an employer, it’s worth remembering that workplace stress can play a role too. Heavy workloads and deadline pressures might mean longer hours with fewer breaks, and stress in itself makes healthy lifestyle habits harder to maintain.

Why moving more matters

Making time to stand up and exercise has a range of health benefits – including lowering our risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke3 – and regular activity helps boost endorphins4, the feel-good brain chemicals that have a powerful effect on physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

According to WHO, regular physical activity is proven to help prevent and manage noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and several cancers. It also helps prevent hypertension, maintain healthy body weight, and can improve mental health, quality of life and well-being5.

So your employees’ activity levels strongly influence how they feel, how well they are and, in turn, how productive they are. What’s more, regular breaks, especially when they involve a change of scenery and movement, can improve concentration and alertness. This is crucial, as long periods of sitting in front of a computer screen can lead to fatigue.

These factors make a powerful case for looking at how much your employees move around, and considering ways to help them stand up more.

Strategies for a more active workforce

For many people, a ‘daily dose’ of movement comes with exercise. However, while a spinning class or a jog can increase fitness, it’s important that your employees also make small adjustments to their movement levels over the rest of the day.

“It’s not that the exercise isn't helpful,” says physiotherapist David Hall. “It’s just that it won’t remove a factor that is shortening your life, in the same way that exercise won’t cancel out the health impact of smoking a packet of cigarettes a day. Research shows that if you get up for two minutes every 30 minutes then the impacts of prolonged sitting can be reduced."

This is good news for desk-based employees, so long as you’re prepared to create a culture where managers and their teams see regular breaks as positive. This might mean moving away from a tendency to equate long hours at a desk with high productivity.

Make sure your team leads are on board, and consider sharing your ‘active ethos’ during the staff induction process. Last but not least, lead by example – changing your own behaviour shows that you really mean what you say.

Here are some healthy habits you could encourage:

  • Use an exercise app that reminds you to take a break.
  • Take smaller mini breaks throughout each hour, and do desk stretches.
  • Use lunch breaks to go for a walk – even a brisk 20 minutes brings benefits.
  • Drink plenty of water and have a water bottle close by, so you get up regularly to refill or go to the bathroom.
  • If you’re in the office, walk over to colleagues to talk, rather than relying on phone or email.
  • Stand during meetings when possible.
  • Configure your computer to use a printer further away from your desk.
  • Take the stairs instead of the lift.
  • Try chair yoga

While many employees are being supported in working from home exclusively, some businesses have adopted a hybrid approach and others still have returned to operating from a communal workplace. As many have enjoyed the benefits that come with working from home, it is perhaps more important than ever to introduce new ideas into the workplace to help employees incorporate activity into their day.

Use communal areas like kitchens to share information, you could pin up a simple poster listing tips or stretches. If you’re keen to make broader changes to the workplace, you can also think about:

  • Providing sit-stand desks.
  • Offering fitness balls that staff can swap for regular chairs.
  • Receiving guidance on two-wheeled commutes and sign up to a bike-to-work scheme. For example, there’s Bike2Work in the UK, The League of American Bicyclists in the US and Bicycle Network’s Ride2Work Program in Australia.
  • Introducing walking meetings – shown to boost creativity and focus.
  • Making wearable devices or a simple pedometer available to employees.
  • Proposing a lunchtime walking club.