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Sedentary Lifestyles

May is “National Walking Month”, and therefore a great opportunity to encourage your teams to get up from their desks and be more active. This is especially as research has suggested the average adult admits to feeling breathless from just “light to moderate” exercise.

Employee health and wellbeing – take steps to get your employees walking more.

May is “National Walking Month” designed to encourage as many people as possible to “give walking everyday journeys a go”.

There is therefore a great opportunity here for employers to use May as a springboard for promotional activity around healthier commutes, more active lunch-breaks and simply being more active (including taking the stairs instead of the lift) during the working day.

And, it could well be that many employees need this kickstart, if research commissioned by the British Lung Foundation is anything to go by.

Its poll of 2,000 people concluded that the average adult feels breathless six times a week, often simply as a result of “light to moderate” exercise, such as climbing stairs.

A quarter (25%) exercised just once a week. A third said they would not be able to run a mile “if their life depended on it”. Three in 10 admitted they were often left gasping for air after walking up a flight of stairs, while four out of 10 felt breathless after running for a bus.

Mike McKevitt, director of patient services at the British Lung Foundation, suggested that breathlessness while doing everyday tasks could, as well as lack of fitness, be a symptom of lung disease and therefore should not be ignored.

‘Too busy’ to exercise

Worryingly, almost half of the respondents were felt their current level of fitness was having an effect on their lives, with many also claiming an injury or being too busy at work was stopping them from exercising.

Helpfully, Business in the Community and Public Health England have published a toolkit to help employers on precisely this: how to encourage healthier eating and exercise habits among their staff.

The toolkit, Physical activity, healthy eating and healthier weight: a toolkit for employers, provides a checklist of actions employers can take to support their employees in making healthier choices.

None of it is rocket science but the toolkit recommends, among other things, that employers should encourage staff to get up from their desks every 30 minutes, promote standing or walking meetings, and provide extra-long telephone cords or cordless phones to allow employees to stand or walk around while making or taking calls.

What, then, should employers take away from this?

First, there is an important “use it or lose it” message here. Overly-sedentary lifestyles can store up a whole host of health problems, and employers are well-placed to be proactive in helping people to kick-start change in their lives.

Environmental and cultural change

Second, as the PHE/BITC toolkit highlights, the solutions need not be complex. A healthier commute can be about simply getting off a stop earlier and walking the remainder of your journey to work.

A healthier working day can be about putting in place the environment and culture that actively encourages people to get up and about. This could be full-on subsidised gyms or lunchtime fitness classes – and they certainly can have their place – but equally it could be about encouraging small changes, whether taking the stairs or simply getting up from your desk regularly.

More widely, it may mean looking at whether or how your organisation encourages (or discourages) people to take a proper lunchbreak, to communicate by methods other than email or not to work all hours.

As Dr Lucy Wright, Optima Health Chief Medical Officer, makes clear, it is important employers recognise three things. “First, employers should not be shy about being proactive in promoting healthier and more active lifestyles; these may well be messages that are welcomed by employees who are worried about their general levels of fitness and wellbeing.

“Second, employers should recognise there can be a ‘win/win’ from encouraging employees to be more active. Not only is it about improving health, fitness and wellbeing (and therefore potentially absence and attendance), becoming less sedentary can encourage more collaborative working and more engaged and productive employees.

“But finally (and third) at the end of the day making the decision to be less sedentary has to be about individual choice, about people actively wanting to make these changes in their lives, rather than just because they have been told to. Employers should be putting the messages out and using whatever tools are available to them, but they also have to recognise it is only employees themselves who can make the change,” she adds.