Integrating Physical Activity into the Workplace: A Strategic Investment

In today's corporate landscape, prioritising employee wellness through physical activity is becoming increasingly essential. Major global initiatives have acknowledged the substantial benefits of workplace physical activity, recognizing its ability to decrease the risk of chronic diseases, boost productivity, and reduce healthcare costs. The United Nations highlights the importance of health and physical activity in its Sustainable Development Goals (Goals 3 and 8), while the World Health Organization supports these efforts through its Global Action Plan on Physical Activity.

The Rise of Workplace Physical Activity Programmes

Workplace physical activity programmes (WPAPs) have been tailored for different employee demographics, including specific occupational groups like construction workers and office employees. These programmes also vary in their approach, encompassing structured or unstructured activities, group or individual exercises, and aerobic or strength training. While the implementation of these programmes is not new, only recently have researchers started to evaluate their actual impact comprehensively.

Evidence of Effectiveness

A systematic review conducted by Maria Marin-Farrona and colleagues in 2023 provides robust evidence supporting the efficacy of WPAPs. The research indicates that these programmes significantly improve both health and productivity metrics. Specifically, WPAPs have been shown to enhance cardiorespiratory capacity, muscle strength, and alleviate musculoskeletal symptoms. Various aerobic exercises, such as running, cycling, walking, and dancing, along with strength training exercises like using dumbbells, isometric routines, and High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), have demonstrated positive outcomes.

Additionally, while not all studies have shown uniform improvements, many WPAPs have contributed to better blood pressure and cholesterol levels, body composition, and self-perceived health ratings. They also help reduce work-related stress and anxiety, further contributing to a healthier, more productive workforce.

Productivity Gains

From a productivity standpoint, incorporating aerobic activity at 60% VO2max for 20–60 minutes, 2–3 times per week, has proven effective in enhancing 'workability' – the extent to which employees are mentally and physically able to perform their roles. Marin-Farrona's review also highlights that WPAPs can reduce absenteeism and boost overall work productivity, though the impact on absenteeism is somewhat smaller.

Customising Programmes for Maximum Impact

Despite the positive outcomes, there is a clear need for further research to pinpoint the most effective workplace physical activity regimens. It's crucial to customise these programmes to meet the needs of the specific work environment and workforce. The return on investment (ROI) for such programmes can vary significantly based on these factors, making it essential to include ROI analysis in WPAP planning.

Overcoming Implementation Barriers

Implementing successful WPAPs involves addressing several challenges, particularly time constraints and lack of motivation among employees. A 2023 systematic review by Elissa Dabkowski and colleagues found that employees generally prefer short interval training, which fits more easily into their schedules, and that exercising with colleagues can significantly boost motivation. For example, a study by Markus Jakobsen involving 200 female healthcare workers at Danish hospitals revealed that a workplace physical exercise programme (5x10 minutes per week) was more effective in enhancing 'work ability' than a similar programme completed at home.

The Importance of Employer Support

For workplace physical activity programmes to succeed, they must have visible support from employers. Frida Bergman and colleagues emphasised that behaviour change initiatives, such as the implementation of treadmill workstations, are more sustainable when introduced internally rather than by external providers. Dabkowski and colleagues went further, highlighting the necessity of support from both management and family to maintain programme integrity and effectiveness, underscoring the complex ecosystem required for successful health interventions in workplace settings.

Broader Implications

Although scientific evidence is still growing, it is evident that health promotion efforts targeting the workplace can positively influence work-related outcomes, particularly absenteeism. Encouraging employees to be more physically active and reducing sedentary behaviour can also mitigate presenteeism – attending work while sick – which may contribute more significantly to productivity losses than absenteeism.

Conclusion

Integrating physical activity into the workplace is not just a health initiative; it's a strategic business decision. By developing tailored workplace physical activity programmes, addressing implementation barriers, and securing robust employer support, businesses can foster a healthier, more productive workforce. The benefits are clear: reduced healthcare costs, enhanced productivity, and a more engaged and capable team. Embracing workplace physical activity is a win-win for employees and employers alike, promising a future of healthier work environments and thriving businesses.

Professor Emeritus Simon Jobson and Dr Dominic Irvine