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Sedentary Lifestyles – Helping Employees Stay More Active

With sedentary lifestyles, too many people are letting their muscles waste as they age, physiotherapists have warned, highlighting the value of employers getting a “use it, or lose it” health promotion message out there to employees.

Employee health and wellbeing – the ‘use it or lose it’ gains of helping employees to stay more active

A survey for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) has warned that too many people, older people especially, are letting their muscles waste as they age by failing to stay active enough.

The research found that nearly a quarter (24%) of people aged 65 and over did no strengthening activities at all each week, potentially putting themselves at risk of falls and other serious ill health.

A further 9% only did strengthening exercise once a week, leaving them short of the official national activity guidelines, which recommend doing at least two sessions a week, in addition to the better-known recommendation for people to be active for 150 minutes a week or more.

Health of older workers

With an ageing working population, the survey also had grim reading for those approaching retirement who were not doing enough to protect their long-term health. The survey showed more than a third (34%) of people aged 55-64 missed the target completely. Across both age ranges, nearly a fifth (19%) said they didn’t know how to do strengthening activities, while a further 18% said they just didn’t want to. Some 35% said a health condition prevented them from doing strengthening exercises.

Previous studies have suggested that strengthening activities can help to prevent falls and other ill health as we age, even reversing the process whereby we lose up to 8% of our muscle mass each decade from the age of 30. A recent study in The Lancet also highlighted the benefits of non-recreational activities such as vacuuming.

Professor Karen Middleton, Chief Executive of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy said: “We must move past the idea that becoming weaker and frailer is inevitable as we get older. Research shows getting stronger brings a whole host of health benefits so it is incredibly important that people don’t overlook strengthening when being active.

“As the guidelines set out, it doesn’t mean immediately hitting the gym to lift weights – to start, it can be digging in the garden or simple bodyweight exercises like standing up out of a chair 10 times. There are easy ways to do it, but the essential thing is to get started and these poll results show a lot of work needs to be done to get that message out”. This by and large, is also the message employers should be taking away from this.

Sedentary working lifestyles

Yes, this research was focused on older people, but the fact our working population is ageing and staying in work into older age, means this is an important message to share. It can also be made to resonate with younger workers who are perhaps more sedentary and less active than they should be.

After all, as research by the University of Edinburgh highlighted last summer, most middle-aged office workers now spend as much time sitting down as pensioners.

Both a “use or lose it” health promotion message and communication around the health dangers that can be stored up from over-sedentary lifestyles in terms of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer could be valuable in this context.

As Cabella Lowe, Professional Head of Musculoskeletal Health at Optima Health has emphasised, this activity message does not need to mean exhorting people to go full-on and get down the gym.

“People often think that they have to do a lot of exercise for it to have any benefit, but that is not true.  Even just encouraging workers to build more activity into their working day can help. This could be anything from taking the stairs instead of the lift, getting up and going over to speak to a colleague instead of emailing them, getting out for a walk at lunchtime or getting off a stop early on their commute and walking the rest of the way.  Quite small changes can make a big difference, and can exercise has the added benefit of improving mood and a sense of wellbeing.

“Ultimately, of course, it is up to individuals to take responsibility for their health and activity levels, but employers should look to see what they can do to promote this within their business. ‘use it or lose it’ messages – to all ages – can be a valuable and powerful way to get across to your employees the long-term health gains of being and staying more active throughout their working life, however sedentary their role may be.” There is a wealth of ideas available on how to go about this, or if you are not sure, seek advice from a Chartered Physiotherapist.