Obesity and poor long-term health outcomes are linked. The problem is many countries are seeing an alarming increase in employees who are either overweight or obese. The problem plays out in the workplace because obesity can lead to long-term diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and can negatively impact on mental health. These can all incur increased sick days. So as an employer what can you do to help tackle employee obesity?
Recent research investigated the sedentary behaviour of long-term sitting and highlighted that the move towards the reduction of sitting time by using sit-stand desks sees only very small improved health effects. Physical activity is the key to reducing excessive sedentary time. Active workstations that include exercise bicycles or treadmills reduce sitting time and encourage employees to be more physically active, thereby reducing the likelihood of becoming overweight or obese. For this post we review a study on a 13-month trial in Sweden of 80 overweight and obese 40-67 year old office employees, of which half moved to treadmill workstations and the other half worked at sit-stand desks. All participants in both groups already had sit-stand desks, which is common in Sweden where 68% of office workers who work more than 25% of their work time in an office have such desks.
The employees using the treadmill workstations were asked to stop work and walk for at least 1 hour per day.
We extend our discussion to report on the key findings of the Stand-Up Victoria project that tested sit-stand desks to promote a reduction in sedentary sitting time at work. Both studies are promoting a decrease in sitting time to bolster long term health improvements.
Notable decrease in sitting time
The expectation for the study was that the introduction of active workstations that included a treadmill, would increase daily walking time by 30 minutes. The results showed that daily walking time increased by 18 minutes while at work and 5 minutes on the weekend. Introducing treadmill workstations as an intervention was shown to be one step forward to a more active workplace than the use of sit–stand desks alone.
However, the increase in weekday walking time saw a decrease in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on both weekdays and on the weekend, with employees thinking that they had done enough exercise while at work. At the end of the study, there was a notable decrease in sitting time for the employees who worked at treadmill work stations, suggesting the possibility of a long-term behavioral change.
As the study progressed, interest from employees to use the treadmill, waned. This is a fairly typical result in lifestyle physical activity interventions. How many of us get all fired up and pay for an annual gym membership to find after the first few weeks the interest to get off the couch decreases?
Furthermore, the results showed no effect on stress levels or improvement in depression or anxiety symptoms.
Did the treadmill workstation decrease obesity?
The study results showed no change to BMI measures, body composition or metabolic functions. The authors argue that the lack of improvement may have been due to the decrease in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Other studies have shown no improvement on glucose or insulin levels, but a reduction in waist circumference and weight loss. One study conducted in Australia, Stand-up Victoria, tested sit-stand workstations and found that overall cardio-metabolic risk decreased compared to the control group, but the decrease was mainly due to the worsening of these markers in the control group. Those who used the sit-stand workstations achieved stable rates over time.
The study noted that for Australian adults, the increase in workplace sitting has not been compensated for by increased physical activity outside work, as evidenced by the relatively unchanged proportion of Australian adults who meet the physical activity guidelines. Television viewing time and car ownership, have in fact, significantly increased the time we are sitting.
This study found that employees with sit-stand desks saw a reduction of sitting time of 1.7 hours per eight-hour work day within the first three months, that after 12 months reduced to one hour.
The Stand-Up Victoria study noted four barriers to change from prolonged sitting times at work to using sit-stand work stations:
- Certain work tasks (such as extended or confidential telephone calls, note taking) discourage or prohibit standing or movement.
- Physical environment may not be conducive to standing and movement, due to lack of audio or visual privacy (such as the voice carrying too far).
- Structural problems with the workstation can occur (such as lack of stability, distance from eyes to screen, lack of working space).
- Unsupportive workplace cultures discourage behavioural change (for example, employees may feel self-conscious standing if they are not explicitly encouraged to do so).
They suggest six enablers to encourage change. Business should provide employees with:
- sit-stand workstations that staff can alter as they please, accompanied by instructions on use
- information and training on ergonomics and working safely
- coaching and support for setting individual goals
- explicit information on the health implications of prolonged sitting
- feedback on employees’ activity levels and behaviour through objective monitoring (for instance activPALs, accelerometers and Fitbits)
- opportunities to see other workers standing, as colleagues will use one another as visual cues to stand.
How can training help increase long term sustainability?
For business, the problem with employee obesity is a long term battle and one influenced by so many environmental factors that they have little or no control over. However, one area of influence is employee training. Prolonged sitting can be viewed as a workplace hazard. Tap Into Safety provide training on hazard perception and rectification. We have a prebuilt training module for the office that includes material about the effects of prolonged sitting and encourages employees to stand and stretch and move more, and the use of sit-stand workstations. As part of your on-boarding processes or safety induction, this training module encourages behavioural change. To compliment that training we also offer access to a range of specialised prebuilt safety and mental health training modules Why not try a free demo?