Increasing physical activity at the workplace

Physical activity not only helps improve cardiovascular health but has important implications for psychosocial health. A meta-analysis of intervention studies including 8 randomized controlled trials reveals that physical activity is reliably associated with better quality of life and emotional wellbeing (Brown, Gilson, Burton, & Brown, 2011).

Promoting messages about the benefits of physical activity at the workplace is one way to increase physical activity among employees. Implementing organizational-level policy change such as free membership to fitness clubs and in-house exercise programmes during protected time is another. But not all workplace interventions are created equal. Some interventions can be more effective than others, while retaining a relatively cost-efficient status.

Here are 8 things to know about effective interventions.

  1. Measure objective health measures
    Educating employees about the benefits of increasing their levels of physical activity may be effective, but these benefits may not be observed in self-report measures of activity level. Using a randomized controlled matched-worksite design, McEachan et al. (2011) compared employees educated on the benefits of physical activity with controls without access to an equivalent intervention. In this study of 1025 respondents, employees who received the intervention were not reporting more physical activity after 9 months than controls, but they had significantly lower systolic blood pressure and a lower resting heart rate. Objective health measures are useful indicators of programme effectiveness.

  2. Emphasize the socioemotional benefits of physical activity
    Promoting the mental health, social, and physical health benefits of physical activity may be more effective than emphasizing only physical health benefits alone. Moreover, promoting each type of benefit at one time may be more effective than educating employees about all three types of benefits altogether. Because it is easier to absorb new information in smaller chunks, promoting mental health benefits separately from physical health benefits may prove to be an effective strategy for increasing physical activity among employees. The workplace intervention in McEachan and colleagues’s (2011) study promoted each category of benefits to employees in different months.

  3. Use a variey of communication channels
    Using a combination of different channels to communicate the benefits of physical activity may also be more effective than relying primarily on email. The workplace programme which reduced systolic blood pressure and resting heart rate in the McEachan et al. (2011) study distributed the benefits of physical activity over several months in the form of posters, leaflets, a management support letter, a knowledge quiz, an email reminder, a newsletter, as well as a physical activity team challenge.

  4. Tailor your programme to the target audience
    Giving employees a pedometer, in addition to information about the benefits of walking and stair-use, increases walking behaviour compared to controls Aittasalo et al. (2012). At the same time, adults with more years of education are more likely to increase their step count with a pedometer. Pedometer awareness has also been associated with greater pedometer use (Craig et al., 2006; Eakin et al., 2007). An intervention involving pedometers can therefore be an cost-efficient strategy for employees with high levels of education. On the other hand, the benefits of giving employees a pedometer may be optimized by impressing upon employees, who have varying levels of education, the benefits of walking and launching a campaign to raise their awareness about pedometers.

  5. Identify factors associated with increased physical activity  
    Common sense dictates that a programme targeted to increase physical activity alone will be not be effective in raising the health status of employees unless it is combined with a campaign which encourages healthy eating. However, it is also important to focus on aspects of healthy eating found to significantly contribute to healthy behaviour. A study of 573 employees in sedentary occupations showed that encouraging employees to log 10,000 steps daily was more effective in reducing waist circumference among those who ate at least two servings of fruit a day (Freak-Poli et al., 2011).

  6. Use facilities accessible to all employees
    Encouraging employees to use the stairs in place of lifts (elevators) increases physical activity at the workplace. In a study of 160 office workers, employees who used the stairs for 10 minutes three times a week over 10 weeks had improved aerobic fitness compared to controls (Andersen et al., 2013). Benefits extended to improved systolic and diastolic blood pressure for the stair-use group over controls, among those with poor fitness at baseline.

  7. Find the right place to motivate employees
    It’s easy to say “take the stairs”. It’s much harder to get everyone to actually take the stairs. Although the physical health benefits of using the stairs over the lift are well established, few studies focus on the effectiveness of campaigns which encourage stair-use. In a study involving two worksites with 500 and 1200 employees and 4 and 5 floors respectively, Eves and colleagues (2013) found that combining a stairwell message such as “stair climbing always burns calories” with an arrow pointing to the stair riser, with posters carrying information about the benefits of stair climbing (and calories consumed by stair use) to be more effective than posters alone, at increasing stair use. Not only were the stairs used more frequently (as clocked by infrared technology) but employees exposed to posters and stairwell messages were more informed about calorie information associated with stair use.
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