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Work life 28 Jun 2021

Active at work

How to help your staff move more

Aerial view of woman sitting at a desk

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.

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. According to the European Commission, however, almost half (49.8%) of the population aged 18 or over in the European Union (EU) did not do any sport in 2014, and only 29.9% spent at least 2.5 hours per week of leisure time doing physical activities2.

As well as an increase in sedentary jobs, the reasons for our rising immobility include longer commutes, screen-based entertainment and technological innovations like lifts and escalators.

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, an active lifestyle reduces our susceptibility to stress, anxiety and depression, and could delay the effects of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia5. Other benefits include better sleep and higher energy levels.

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 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.

“Regular breaks, especially when they involve a change of scenery and movement, can improve concentration and alertness.”

Sitting - Bupa Australia video

Strategies for a more active workplace

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.
  • 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.

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.

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1. and 2. Eurostat ( ), last accessed in June 2021

3. NHS (, last accessed in June 2021

4. Anxiety and Depression Association of America (, last accessed in June 2021

5. WHO (, last accessed in June 2021

Quartz (, last accessed in June 2021

NY Times (, last accessed in June 2021

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