Most working adults don’t meet the current recommendations for physical activity. Working a full-time job is often cited as the first reason for not hitting the gym regularly. This lack of exercise negatively impacts physical and mental health as well as productivity in the workplace.
Many employers have developed programs to urge all of their employees to develop healthier habits through health assessments and physical activity initiatives aimed at the entire employee population.
Workplace exercise programs run into a few obstacles that make it difficult to determine the individual and company-wide benefits. Most of these programs suffer from low participation. The programs are voluntary and include fliers around the building, encouraging movement breaks, or the construction of a walking path. Many people who participate in these programs are already more active than those who remain at their desks.
It’s also challenging to tie direct cost benefits into the participation in these exercise programs. Employers understand that physical activity reduces the risk of diabetes and heart disease, illness, and stress levels. But employers often need to see a quantifiable benefit to go to the trouble of implementing a program.
In the book Creating Healthy Workplaces Stress Reduction, Improved Well-being, and Organizational Effectiveness, a meta-analysis of the literature on exercise programs demonstrates that there are direct, measurable rewards for employers who institute mandatory exercise programs for their employees. These programs ensure that part of the workday is set aside for exercise. The exercise is strategic and planned, rather than just an encouragement to walk more, or stretch occasionally.
Immediate benefits to the bottom line, and employees
The positive effects of this mandatory exercise during the day were both quick and accumulating. When people are exercising at work, they experience lowered stress levels and spend less time out of work due to illness. Reduced absenteeism benefits the bottom line.
In addition to reduced absenteeism, workplace exercise programs improve employees’ productivity during office hours. So, setting aside half an hour for exercise during the day results in more work getting done — supervisors who get regular exercise experience improved relationships with their employees, and lower stress levels.
Daniel Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing tells readers not to expect their cognitive abilities to remain constant throughout the workday. Most people have a peak productivity window, followed by a period of cognitive decline. There is usually a brief recovery in the afternoon where creative ideas begin flowing again. Employers can use this knowledge to schedule workplace exercise breaks when employees are naturally less productive.
Accumulated benefits for all
The accrued benefits of workplace exercise programs speak to productivity improvement. Employees who exercise more are also sleeping better and experiencing higher levels of cognitive function. Better brain power directly increases productivity.
Workplace culture also improves as employees benefit from reduced stress and a greater sense of community with their coworkers. There is a better balance of work and life when employees have time to exercise during the workday, which increases an employee’s commitment to the organization.
Employees report accumulative effects of exercise that demonstrate that the short term benefits of term stress reduction and improved mood translate to more excellent emotional stability. Employees will be better able to handle criticism when warranted and will handle disputes with ease.
What does this look like in practice?
Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite, details the benefits of implementing workplace-based exercise programs in his office spaces. Holmes says that employees return from workouts mentally rejuvenated and ready to innovate through the afternoon. He also notes reduced absenteeism and a commitment to the organization bolstered by the human connections developed by exercising together.
Hootsuite has a small space in the office dedicated to exercise as well as showers and changing facilities. They also have trainers teaching yoga and other exercise classes on occasion. Some employees run at lunchtime or hike after work. The rule at Hootsuite is that employees must be on time for meetings, and make up the time they spent working out. Many employees work out during their lunch breaks and eat lunch while working.
Other companies are experiencing the benefits of employee exercise programs too. Google, Adidas, and many others are working to break the sit and stay habits of today’s workers.
My employer won’t provide time for exercise during the day
If this is you, you’re in good company. I’ve worked for 13 years in urban education, and before that in a variety of office jobs. None of these jobs were conducive to workplace exercise unless you get creative.
One school I taught at introduced fitness Friday’s where teachers and students were encouraged to wear athletic attire and do something active for a part of the day. I’d take my fifth-grade class to the playground and do a group workout, or play a game of tag on these days. This brief exercise break, in addition to the typical recess period, helped to recenter me and invigorated my students.
Bring some research to show your employer the benefits of workplace exercise programs. Then, show them how it could work. Start by using your lunch break to sneak in some exercise, and then eat at your desk afterward. Find people in the office who are interested in joining you, and make it a group activity.
Two previous coworkers of mine came up with a genius solution. They brought in a small set of hand weights, packed a bag with exercise clothing, and worked out in an empty classroom once the children dismissed, but before they went home to their children and the chaos of working mom life.
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