Benefits and Compensation, Learning & Development

If Employees Are Stiff and Stressed, Exercise at Work Can Help

With the new year, many people are enthusiastic about New Year’s resolutions, and often those intentions center on fitness and wellness goals. That may be especially true this year as the pandemic drags on. The stress, isolation, and disruption brought on by COVID takes a toll on employees’ mental and physical health and is getting at least part of the blame for the “Great Resignation” that’s robbing employers of talent. All the pandemic pressures have employers looking for ways to help their overworked and anxiety-ridden employees cope. A focus on fitness can be part of the solution.

Understanding the Need

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has published “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans” that recommend at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. Ideally, the aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.

The guidelines also advise muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week. Despite that advice, many people say jobs and other demands keep them from getting the exercise they know they need.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that on average, Americans working full-time spend more than one-third of their day five days a week at work. Therefore, programs sponsored by employers can reduce health risks and improve the quality of life for workers, the CDC says.

All kinds of workplaces can promote physical activity for employees, and that’s important, the CDC says, because many barriers to physical activity can be addressed by workplace programs. For example, a walking path gives employees the opportunity to walk during their workday. Making a path available at work addresses barriers such as people not having time to walk, concerns about neighborhood safety, or lack of social support.

What to Do

The CDC published its “Physical Activity Breaks for the Workplace Resource Guide” in May 2021. It gives tips on how to integrate physical activity into the workday.

Activity breaks can be done individually or in groups, and most require little to no equipment or training. The guide says employers don’t need to have on-site gyms to create opportunities, and the activities can even be a fun addition to the workday.

The CDC guide also suggests that employers use policies and incentives to encourage physical activity, such as flextime, paid activity breaks, or discounts for off-site exercise facilities.

Employers also can establish walking clubs or competitions that encourage and motivate employees. The guide also suggests employers consider walkability and access to public transit when selecting new worksite locations. Employers also can engage in community planning efforts to make the areas around worksites more walkable.

The CDC guide advises physical activity break leaders to start with easy activities that can expand into more complex activities as experience grows. Also, leaders should give people permission to adapt activities to fit their bodies, such as allowing people to sit instead of stand to avoid joint pain.

The Mayo Clinic also urges people to incorporate physical activity into their workdays and makes suggestions for employers:

  • Urge employees to walk or bike to work. Also, if they take public transportation, suggest they get off at an earlier stop and walk the rest of the way.
  • Help employees think of ways to get out of their chairs, such as standing while talking on the phone or walking to a colleague’s desk instead of using instant messaging or e-mail.
  • Suggest that coworkers organize lunchtime walking groups.
  • Provide a treadmill desk to walk and work simultaneously.

NASA also encourages employees to exercise at work, and the space agency has published a DeskFitbooklet that includes 20 exercises that can be done in the office or home workspace. Among the tips in the booklet:

  • Take a break from sitting every 30 minutes. A five- or 10-minute break can refresh the mind and prevent chronic pain.
  • Walk and use the stairs whenever possible.
  • Schedule time to exercise daily.
  • Take one- to two-minute microbreaks every 30 to 60 minutes to stand up and stretch.
  • Use a hands-free headset for the phone to make moving around easy while talking on the phone.

Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications. 

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