The role employers play in reducing physical inactivity

Physical inactivity is a major issue of our time, costing the UK an estimated £7.4 billion a year, through rising long-term health conditions, greater dependency on nursing care and a drop in workplace productivity.

The decline in manual jobs and active commuting has had a significant effect on the amount of physical activity we perform in our daily lives and this is hard to compensate for in leisure time.

To provide employers with up-to-date guidance, Sport England commissioned Nuffield Health to write a white paper to explore and identify which interventions are most effective when it comes to increasing physical activity and reducing sedentary behaviour in a workplace context.

Based on the report’s findings, here’s how SME leaders can drive behaviour change and reap the benefits of a more physically active workforce.

Knowing the difference

Physical activity is defined as any activity which requires a significant level of energy and raises your heart rate, like running, cycling or swimming. In contrast, sedentary behaviour is defined as long periods of sitting or lying down, like working at a desk all day and then watching TV in the evening.

It may come as a surprise, but someone can be classed as leading a sedentary lifestyle while meeting the recommended aerobic guidelines of 150 minutes per week. In other words, it is not enough to go to the gym every evening if you spend the rest of the day stationary.

Physical inactivity also appears to be more common among lower socioeconomic groups. Those in the bottom quintile of the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Index of Multiple Deprivation are twice as likely as those in the top to be inactive.

These differences in activity levels translate into noticeable health inequalities. For example, men living in the bottom 10 percent of areas ranked by deprivation live 9 years less than those who live in the top 10 percent. The most disadvantaged suffer significantly higher incidences of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and various cancers.

So, as a small business, how can you address these issues and promote a healthy lifestyle for all your employees in or outside of the workplace?

Key findings

To better understand the current evidence on workplace interventions, Nuffield Health systematically searched the available literature, narrowing down a long list of 3,809 studies to 107 relevant, recent evidence-based studies.

We judged interventions to have a strong evidence base where more than 66 percent of studies found a statistically significant effect and a moderate evidence base, 50-65 percent.

From our analysis, the good news is employers can make a difference. Active desks and activity prompts show effective results, reducing sedentary behaviour by providing positive gentle nudges to increase bursts of activity and giving employees the flexibility to work standing up or sitting down throughout the day.

Group support and on-site exercise classes also proved to be effective because they introduce a social element, forming bonds between co-workers and providing extra motivation to achieve health goals.

Multicomponent interventions – those combining offline and online elements – produced optimistic results as this blend increases touch-points and chances of employee buy-in.

However, our literature review highlighted a lot of this research readily available, is not strong enough to provide robust evidence and studies on physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour in a workplace context.

This is holding back real change because companies cannot make the business case for enhanced financial investment to senior management.

This, in turn, also means those who really need additional support in under-represented factions like female workers, lower socioeconomic groups or those with lower levels of educational attainment, are unlikely to receive enough guidance to make any real, long-term differences.

Putting recommendations into practice

Physical inactivity can have real business and economic consequences. Physically active employees have lower levels of absenteeism or presenteeism, higher productivity and are less likely to suffer from stress or depression.

Behaviour change must be culture-driven from the top, with senior management leading by example. If you don’t practice what you preach, you can’t expect your employees to take your programme seriously.

As a small business, you have the advantage of having regular, close contact with your employees day-to-day, which can help drive long-term behaviour change more quickly.

However, employers must approach personal issues in a sensitive manner, so employees don’t feel like their personal choices or actions are being criticised. Eating well and exercising regularly can present a real challenge for some employees, but these are also the ones most likely to benefit from interventions.

Businesses need to keep conversations around healthy lifestyles positive, focusing on the benefits increased physical activity can bring, like increasing energy, job performance and emotional resilience both at work and in their personal lives.

Empower employees through information. Many of the businesses involved in research had seen strong results from health kiosks providing staff with basic health data like blood pressure, body fat and their BMI.

This equipment is relatively cheap to buy and a great investment because it gives employees key health stats to monitor their personal progress and produces tangible evidence, so individuals can see real results and changes happening over time.

It’s important to communicate the differences between physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle. Workers who have stood on their feet all day in a shop or factory are often surprised to be told they still have not done enough physical activity and aren’t meeting their recommended weekly aerobic guidelines.

Every workplace is different, so a one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t do. Interventions must be adapted to each type of workplace, depending on the space and resources available, people’s work schedules and whether employees work flexibly or remotely.

Before setting out the best strategy and targeting investment and resources, it may be beneficial to conduct a short survey to understand how your employees feel about the proposed methods and which interventions they feel would suit their personal needs.

The benefits of an active workforce are clear, and so too are the risks associated with physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour. SMEs have nothing to lose and everything to gain by getting their employees moving. So, what are you waiting for?


By Dr Davina Deniszczyc, Primary Care Medical Director and Charity Director, Nuffield Health