Why we need a new guideline for Low Activity

The data, from health organisation Ukactive, shows that workplace commitments and the ties of being desk-bound are having a negative impact on the nation’s fitness levels, linking sitting to health worries including type 2 diabetes, obesity, some cancers as well as back, neck and muscle pain. Rather than being a net contributor to this problem, offices could hold the answer to one of the nation’s most pressing issues.

NHS guidelines recommend 150 minutes moderate activity a week but it could be argued that a new NHS target should be added, requiring 300 low activity minutes a day focused around work.

Activity levels broadly fall into 3 distinct categories - Low, Moderate, Vigorous. Low activity gets you to about 40-50% of your maximum heart rate (or being able to sing and talk easily), moderate is slightly out of breath (talking, no singing) and vigorous, very out of breath (no singing or talking). The NHS has guidelines for the latter two; 75 minutes for vigorous, 150 minutes for moderate but nothing for low level. The Mayo Clinic defines this area as NEAT Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenensis which means more than sedentary but less (activity) than exercise. Many people often wonder why they put on weight when they are careful with their diet not understanding it’s because they are burning so little that just one biscuit a day and the resulting small energy imbalance can lead to obesity given sufficient sedentary months in an office.

Ideally it’s for the RCGP ( Royal College of GPs) to define the guideline figure but let’s say 300 minutes of low daily activity is the target. This equates to the way we used to live in the recent past, 10,000 years ago, but more importantly, our evolutionary past (2 million years) when we were known to be in our feet for a large part of daylight hours.

5 hours a day may seem a lot but given the 8 hour working day you could easily stand for 2 of those hours, sit actively ( on a swiss ball or similar) for another two (as half hour blocks) and for the remaining hour, just consciously move more in the workplace doing activities that encourage and promote movement.

5 hours or 300 minutes equates to half the working day standing. Millions of shopworkers, hairdressers, medical staff already surpass this daily. The figure seems large as we are in this crazy position of starting from zero minutes of activity in offices but it’s actually very achievable. 

It could be something as simple as removal of all deskside bins in favour of a central bin or a policy that discourages email to colleagues in the same building in favour of face to face communication. Over the course of the year, the increased energy expenditure could equate to running around 14 marathons, greatly offsetting the slow creep of obesity caused by that extra biscuit.

Employers may ask what are the incentives for them to introduce modified environments and working practices associated with more active working methods. We have countless stories from companies whose staff spend most of the day moving and rather than feeling tired, they are energised, sharp and productive. When we started looking into this seven years ago, our message was all about health. Now, it’s more about what it does to your mood, your alertness and your productivity. The health benefits are better understood but it’s the message about how it motivates that seems most compelling.

While steps to alleviate sedentary working practice tend to come from forward-thinking employees who choose to change their behaviour, the most effective results are seen when employers implement measures to adapt the working environment.

Guidelines that would make the most difference are:

  • NHS targets for low level activity introduced ensure sitting is not the default option at work
  • Promote active sitting options requiring minor movements
  • Modify working practices to encourage activity (stairs instead of lifts, less emails to colleagues, standing meetings, active working areas, use of technology to break from keyboard driven work)

Active work areas where employees move from their desk to a designated area equipped for active working.

It could be argued that to a large extent offices have contributed to the obesity crisis but for many of the same reasons it could provide a solution. Offices have a largely captive audience (staff) and employers are uniquely placed to shape an active working environment that does not rely on individual's willpower. Modifying the environment and generally bringing in active working practices is far more likely to succeed than an individual making a lone stance in an otherwise sedentary setting.

Having gyms in basements is not enough. Only a small percentage use the often poorly equipped company facilities. The need to change and devote a 30 minute plus block of time acts as a barrier as oppose to introducing facilities that integrate movement with normal working patterns. In many senses, employers are more likely to succeed than gym owners in bringing about effective change as retention is not an issue and staff largely have to adhere to company policy. If the policy is standing only during meetings, then in almost all cases people will be standing. There's no decision to be made and no willpower needed. After some initial grumbling from a few, staff accept this as the new normal.

It takes some thought and creative thinking to change 50 years of sedentary culture but the tide is turning and we can slowly reintroduce the activity that has ebbed away from our working lives. Offices, seen as contributing to the sedentary society can now start to be seen as the saviours.