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Step Up

Technology has been instrumental in many advances in the health sector, such as improved data and analysis. However, widespread use of technology, and the resulting sedentary lifestyle, has also begun to create severe health problems.

Sitting for too long (more than seven hours per day) increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and a number of cancers, even when people are physically active at other times of the day. Emerging research is highlighting the fact that sedentary lifestyles will soon be a huge strain on health resources.

One significant example of how technology is driving sedentary behaviour is the change in how typical office jobs are performed. Where workers once spent much of their time walking around the office to deliver documents or speak to a colleague, the introduction of email and digital filing networks has greatly reduced this excuse for exercise.

Web conferencing software saves time and money previously spent on travelling to meetings, but at the cost of more sitting around. Internet connectivity allows people to work from home, but removing the need to commute means removing another slice of physical activity from the working day.

Research conducted by the Society of Occupational Medicine used pedometers to record sitting times and step counts for 72 office workers, both inside and outside working hours. They found that 65 per cent of the working day was spent sitting – and those who remained at their desks the longest did not compensate by taking more exercise outside of work. The research recommended that occupational health interventions should focus on reducing the amount of time spent sitting both inside and outside the workplace.

Another study by the University of Edinburgh’s Physical Activity for Health Research Centre looked at sedentary habits across different ages. They discovered that middle-aged office workers spend an average of 7.8 hours sitting down, compared to the 7.4 hours of sedentary time for the retired over-75s on weekdays.

Lead researcher, Tessa Strain, comments: “Large parts of the population are dangerously sedentary, something we have underestimated. We need to tackle high levels of sedentary time in early and middle age, when patterns may develop. Our findings suggest that changing habits in the workplace could be an appropriate place to start, given how much time we spend sitting there
every day.”

Proactive employers are already taking steps to ensure that their workplaces are helping to reduce the problem rather than add to it. From designing active buildings to working with workplace health specialists, there is a growing range of solutions to choose from.

StepJockey, backed by the Department of Health, offers programmes to encourage physical activity in workplaces around the UK. BNP Paribas Personal Finance, for example, has introduced StepJockey initiatives such as its stair-use app and labels on staircases providing calorie burn information.

Kevin McKeever, the company’s Head of Human Resources, says: “Since we launched StepJockey we’ve seen a real hive of activity develop in our stairwells, with colleagues opting for walking meetings on the stairs and even some real enthusiasts swapping their usual exercise routine for a session on the stairs. As a business, not only is this great for our health but it’s proving to be a great opportunity to bring colleagues together. We’re looking forward to launching our next challenge
this spring.”

Company employees recently completed a ‘Tour de France’ challenge during which one participant burnt over 5,000 calories. A total of 488,407 steps were taken, amassing 47,609 burnt calories. The event raised awareness and encouraged employees to see the stairs as a means of exercise, and change their daily routine to incorporate more stair use.

Merton Council installed StepJockey smart signs at its Civic Centre and introduced a stair climbing challenge powered by the StepJockey app. The results showed that staff had cumulatively climbed heights equivalent to Mount Everest. Over the next four weeks, participants burned an average of 4,000 calories per day.

In 2014, KPMG became the first building in Canary Wharf to start using calorie burn labels. Hundreds of staff downloaded the StepJockey app in the first few days, and teams in the building climbed the equivalent of Everest 18 times in just a few weeks.

Other companies that have signed up with StepJockey include ESPN, insurance company National General and Channel 4. Shanna Szoke of National General comments: “The smart signs are simple to use and the challenges are easy to promote. It has got people moving and has added a fun, competitive energy in the office. The challenges have been very well received with a lot of engagement and excitement. The feedback has been nothing but positive.”

As the negative effects of sedentary behaviour become more apparent and costly, facilities managers and others responsible for staff wellbeing are likely to seek new ways to make their workplaces more active. Staff who are fit and healthy are more productive, more engaged with their organisation, and take fewer sick days off work. There are also indirect cost benefits, such as the savings from reduced use of lifts. It’s a win-win situation all round.

About Sarah OBeirne

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