Workplace wellness: The benefits of exercise

We know we should exercise. And we know how much we need to accomplish in a week. The gold standard for working adults aged 18 to 64 years is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigourous physical activity, as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

But what does exercise, particularly that at the workplace, achieve?

A vast number of studies point to the health benefits that directly result from exercise and physical activity. Corporate wellness programmes designed to improve workers’ physical activity and/or their diet through exercise or education on a one-to-one or group level, significantly reduce body fat — a risk factor for cardiovascular disease — in 31 random-controlled studies (Groeneveld, Proper, van der Beek, Hildebrandt, & van Mechelen, 2010).

High-density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol — another risk factor for cardiovascular disease — was significantly lower than baseline after a 4-year workplace programme to improve physical activity in 2929 factory workers in Japan, after controlling for effects from smoking (Naito, Nakayama, Okamura, Miura, Yanagita, Fujieda, Kinoshita et al., 2008).

Combining strength and aerobic fitness with cognitive-behavioural training and individually customized diet plans, was effective in reducing body mass index or BMI, body fat percentage, and blood pressure, in a randomized controlled study of 98 overweight workers in Denmark (Christensen, Faber, Ekner, Overgaard, Holtermann, & Sogaard, 2011).

Given that workplace fitness programmes result in lower risks for cardiovascular disease, the cost savings to organizations from having lower medical fees and insurance premiums are plain to see. And workplace fitness programmes not only improve anxiety and depression scores, but reduce absenteeism (Bhui, Dinos, Stansfeld, & White, 2008). In fact, for individuals with depression, a fitness programme lasting only 9 weeks of aerobic or strength/resistance training of varying intensity can bring about improvements in mental wellbeing and quality of life ratings (Craft & Perner, 2004).

So apart from making you healthier and your bosses happier, exercise makes you feel good.

Why? Well, current theory posits that exercise induces the release of endorphins which is associated with positive mood, effects an increase in temperature in specific brain regions resulting in muscle relaxation, and/or increases availability of mood-regulating neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin (Craft & Perner, 2004).

And physical activity is not confined to just aerobic and strength/resistance training. A 12-week-long poster and sticker campaign to get Swiss hospital staff to use the stairs brought about not only slimmer waists and the desired use of the stairs, but also reductions in body fat, BMI, HDL cholesterol, and blood pressure (Meyer, Kayser, Kossovsky, Sigaud, Carballo, Keller, Martin, Farpour-Lambert et al., 2010). A 6-months follow-up showed that while lift use had resumed — the stairs were sadly neglected — employees maintained their aerobic fitness and body fat.

So, time to take those stairs to work…

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