Causality is easier to evidence where there is physical activity with a demonstrable consequence; the injury or fatality caused by an accident can be seen and investigated. Yet a series of studies and surveys are shedding light on what has become one of the under-reported occupational health issues of our time: sedentariness.
In this age of email and the internet, with more of us working from home or in office environments, it is clear a growing proportion of us are sitting down and physically inactive for long periods of the day at work.
A US study published five years ago, still relevant today, revealed a significant portion of the national weight gain could be explained by a decline in physical activity during the working day.
Jobs that required moderate physical activity, which accounted for around half of the labour market in 1960, had fallen to just 20% by 2011, researchers found. A 2014 survey of UK employees across education, government administration, retail, telecommunications and the service industry discovered that more than half of the time spent sitting on a work day was accumulated at work. There were significant associations between sitting time and higher body mass index. And in recent weeks, The Lancet published research on more than one million adults that found sitting for at least eight hours a day could increase the risk of premature death by up to 60%.
With a commendable focus on the solution, the international research team behind this latest study concluded that an hour or more of physical activity a day could counteract prolonged sitting incurred at work, home or while commuting. Lead researcher Professor Ulf Ekelund, of the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences and the University of Cambridge, said: “There has been a lot of concern about the health risks associated with today’s more sedentary lifestyles.
“Our message is a positive one: it is possible to reduce – or even eliminate – these risks if we are active enough, even without having to take up sports or go to the gym.” Prof Ekelund went on to say: “For many people who commute to work and have office-based jobs, there is no way to escape sitting for prolonged periods of time. “For these people in particular, we cannot stress enough the importance of getting exercise, whether it’s getting out for a walk at lunchtime, going for a run in the morning or cycling to work.
“An hour of physical activity per day is the ideal, but if this is unmanageable, then at least doing some exercise each day can help reduce the risk.” Employers and employees are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of physical activity and are providing simple opportunities in the workplace that can make a big difference. Some have employed flexible working policies that allow people to exercise before work or during their lunch breaks, while others have encouraged staff to walk or cycle to work, or have arranged discounts at leisure centres and health clubs. Encouraging employees to plan and take part in health-related activities at work brings people together socially and helps builds positive relationships with work colleagues.
At the same time, we are increasingly using our mobile phones or watches to track our daily exercise, promoting a desire to move more. This combined with a positive employer programme can be a powerful enabler for the workforce.
Looking forward to the expectations of the workforce in the future, as I mentioned in a previous column, employees will have a greater expectation of flexible working and improved facilities to enable them to achieve not only a better work-life balance but a better work-health balance.
The benefits are cost savings arising from improved sickness absence and employee turnover and fewer accidents and injuries. However, employers are increasingly recognising that valuing their employees through such support programmes has also consistently resulted in a happier, more motivated and higher performing workforce.