Our understanding of the health and fitness needs of individuals is growing. The evidence is clear that activity is key to a person’s wellbeing, both emotionally and physically. Yet in many workplaces around the country, we still spend an average of eight hours a day sitting at our desks.

Sales of wearable fitness trackers have increased, year on year, to a massive $22 billion in 2017 (up from just $4 billion in 2014), but despite this seeming obsession with counting our steps, our activity hasn’t increased and we’re sitting as much as ever.

Take a seat

A recent study, carried out by office equipment firm Fellowes, found that eight out of ten office workers spend around 67 days a year sitting.

The health implications of sitting for too long, too often have been understood for quite some time. Back in 2014 we wrote about the dangers of excessive sitting. Research carried out in 2013 found that a sedentary lifestyle can account for 5.9% of all-cause premature mortality. In some cases, it is argued to be as bad for our health as smoking.

Given the amount of time we spend in the workplace, businesses have a large part to play in helping their employees stay healthy by being active. According to the Fellowes study, 64% of office workers felt that their sedentary working environment negatively impacted their health. Almost half (45%) don’t think that their employer cares about their health and wellbeing.

The good news is that there are lots of options for employers.

Are you sitting comfortably

A recent study carried out by Loughborough University and the University of Leicester trialled height-adjustable workstations. This simple concept encouraged workers to stand for at least some of the day. The Stand More at Work (SMArT Work) programme found that this can improve productivity and reduce anxiety, fatigue and back pain. Participants sat for an average of 83 minutes less each day and reported several positive side effects.

Dr Charlotte Edwardson, associate professor at the University of Leicester, said: “Those who received the SMArT Work programme reported improvements in their work performance, work dedication and engagement, quality of life and reduced levels of sickness presenteeism, feelings of fatigue and musculoskeletal issues, such as lower back pain.”

Other pieces of office equipment such as foot and wrist rests, back supports, proper seating, appropriate desk layout and adequate lighting can all make a significant difference to an individual’s office health.

Yet, no matter how comfortable your desk is, one of the most important factors in workplace health and wellbeing is activity. The Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine, Public Health England and Sport England have joined forces recently to launch The Moving Medicine toolkit. The toolkit is designed to help health professionals offer advice and support to patients about how activity can help them better manage or recover from their conditions.

 Active recovery

Going forward, medical professionals will be able to prescribe exercise for the treatment of a wide range of physical and mental health issues.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said “There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that patients with all kinds of conditions – from depression to diabetes – would benefit from more exercise, yet understandably those suffering with chronic illness are more likely to be inactive.”

This demonstrates how seriously the government is taking this matter, and employers have a key role to play and a huge amount to gain from supporting healthier workplaces.

Keep moving

Here are a few suggestions on how to achieve this.

1. Move the tea and coffee point up or down stairs from the main office area
2. Hold standing, or better still, walking meetings
3. Encourage people to stand when they are making phone calls
4. Offer lunch break classes – yoga, Pilates, stretch – anything that isn’t too sweaty if you can’t provide shower facilities
5. Form a company running club – provide motivation and safety in numbers in the dark evenings
6. Suggest employees set a 30 or 60 minute timer to get up and stretch their legs
7. It might seem a bit 1980’s but stability balls instead of chairs are a great idea even if you just use them for 10 – 15 minutes a day – great for your core!
8. Set up a company-wide league board for all those fitness trackers – who does the most steps? Gets the most sleep? Drinks the most water?
9. Encourage people to get out and walk after lunch
10. Instead of sending an email to a colleague in the same building, pop round and say hi.

Team work

Office workers spend between four and nine hours sitting at their desks every working day. That is a strong habit to break. However, forward thinking, progressive workplaces can help to change these outdated routines for the better.

Individuals can struggle to make real, lasting change, but with encouragement, support, team spirit, reminders and triggers in the workplace, the whole business can work towards a healthier, happier lifestyle. Employers have a significant role to play in improving the health of the nation, and in so doing, improving the productivity, loyalty and wellbeing of their staff.