According to the Department of Health, physical inactivity is defined as “not getting the recommended level of regular physical activity that is identified by the American Heart Association to promote cardiovascular fitness.” This standard is currently 30 – 60 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times per week. With nearly 35% of coronary heart disease mortalities all identifying physical inactivity as the cause of death, this risk factor is not only detrimental to us as human beings, but also puts a major strain on our economy, employee morale and productivity. According to ACE, American Council of Exercise, only 55% of adults engage in enough aerobic exercise to reap the health benefits. This sedentary lifestyle and lack of activity can increase the risk of obesity, hearth disease, stroke, diabetes and lead to low bone density, low muscle mass and loss of strength (Ace Fitness, 2017).
Employees with unhealthy lifestyles will ultimately cause employees both indirect and direct risk factors. Related direct costs specifically include medical, disability and workers compensation, while indirect costs revolve around absenteeism and lack of productivity. According to ACE, physical inactivity is now the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality. In today’s society we spend more time sitting on the couch, on our phones or watching TV. This immobility wreaks havoc on our bodies, as well as to our bank accounts. Taking a closer look at the numbers we can see that physical inactivity accounts for roughly 8.7% of U.S. health care expenditures, or approximately an additional $117 billion per year. In addition, adults who are physically active spend nearly $1,500 less per year on health care than inactive adults. Moving our culture from sedentary to active could save us billions of dollars in health care costs (ACE, 2017).
Physical inactivity is a leading cause of adult obesity. Obese individuals spend on average $1,429 more than an average weight adult – roughly 42% higher. In addition to higher medical costs, employees who are physically unfit miss more workdays than a fit employee and in turn are less productive at their job (CDC, 2018). Physical activity at work leads to healthier employees, stronger job performance, and a boost to the business bottom line via decreased health care costs and improved productivity. Additionally, supporting employee exercise efforts sends a strong message of support to employees. That boost of recognition can positively affect the company’s ability with retention and recruitment.
While the movement of this risk factor can change based on the demographic, in general physical inactivity will continue to increase in our nation. According to The Lancet, the leading publication on global health, physical inactivity is more deadly than smoking. One major detail behind this risk is due to inactive children. With only six states currently requiring physical education in every grade K – 12, it is clear that inactive children lead to inactive adults which means increased health issues and costs once they are employed (HHS, 2019). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 8.8 hours every day, but realistically only accomplishes 3 hours of productive work. The rest of the time is often spent browsing social media, reading, talking to coworkers, eating snacks and reading online articles – all activities that are done sitting in a chair (Curtain, 2018).
Often time employees work extra hours or on weekends to finish projects or tasks, adding additional sedentary time to their day. In addition, both technology and our environment play a role in declining physical activity. With advanced technology, we are more inclined to give into the convenience of new luxuries that are replacing manual labor. Things like electric bikes, autonomous vehicles, Amazon/Google home systems and grocery delivery hinder us from having to perform these tasks ourselves. 33% of American families have the TV on during dinner and 5% say they are often texting or emails while eating dinner (CBS, 2010). While these variables are within our control, we still chose to opt for the quickest and essentially laziest options. One variable however that is outside of our control that is creating a decline in activity is environmental concerns. With increased levels of air pollution, street violence, traffic, and a lack of recreational parks and bike lanes, it is not always the safest option to opt outside for physical activity.
There are many factors the lead to the global decline in physical activity, all of which are constantly on the rise. Research shows that by 2030 the average hours per week of being sedentary will be up an additional 6 hours totaling 45 hours. While this may not seem like a significant number, compare it to 2000, only 18 years ago when hours not in motion per week were at 30. Sedentary movement is defined as an absence of whole-body movement at one given time. Technological advancements, eating habits, and overtime working will silently be destroying our bodies as time progresses.
While physical inactivity globally can vary based on country infrastructure, transportation methods and terrain, the following research is specific to the United States. According to the most recent Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data, Kentucky had the highest reported percentage of adult inactivity at 34.4% followed by closely by Mississippi. In this study, inactivity includes all adults who have not engaged in physical activity or exercise in the last 30 days – not including daily job movement. The CDC states that variables such as low income level, poor lifestyle & diets, smoking habits and funding for public health care are just a few factors that contribute to inactivity.
According to the United Health Foundation, “someone living in Kentucky is 55 percent more likely to die from cancer than a person living in Utah. A resident of Mississippi is 85 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than someone living in Minnesota. If you live in West Virginia, you are more than twice as likely to have diabetes as someone living in Colorado” (Maddock, 2018, p. 1).On the other hand, Washington State came in first place as most fit state at 19.2%, followed by Colorado (Obesity, 2018). These states, along with other northeast and pacific west states provide individuals with a mountainous terrain, quicker pace of life, and growing metropolis cities. Research reports that 90% of Colorado residents participate in some form of recreation activity every day. It is ranked the #1 place for biking, is home to over 270 certified organic farms, offers 8 million acres of public land and parks, and is on the Best Places to Work list (CO, 2016). Geography definitely seems to play a major role in individuals lifestyle, which is turn causes increased exertion for employers, specifically in the southern states. It will take more money, time and effort to promote healthy living and motivation.
Another factor of employer impact includes a wide variety of professions. While industries such as fireman, police officers, military, warehouse workers, nurses, etc. have a higher probability of being on their feet and walking around, there is essentially no job that requires a continuous elevated heart rate and muscle strengthening that is encouraged to be considered physically active. In fact, research shows that “people in production jobs, which likely involve more physical labor, tend to exercise less in their leisure time than people with managerial or more office-based occupations; 51% of people with production jobs failed to meet the exercise recommendations compared to only around 30% of people with professional and managerial jobs. And people with more sedentary jobs reported the highest amounts of recreational physical activity” (Park, 2016). Employers in all locations and industries need to foster a community of positive workplace culture. When we see leaders and upper management engaging in the well-being of employees and stressing the importance of employee health, it boosts the corporate identity.
There are multiple tactics that employers can utilize to promote a healthy workplace including various low cost options. Employers need to remember that physical activity programs are not “one size fits all” and by building a stronger culture it can foster employee wellness. Dr. Pronk describes a culture of health as “the idea that people are supported [in their efforts to be physically active] through an unwritten law” (WHRN, 2018). This means that workplace physical activity needs be encouraged and supported by employer leaders, upper management and peers. Along with fostering a community of support, employers should utilize partnerships and networking to form walking clubs and group exercise activities. This is especially easy and cost efficient if the workplace is able to use existing resources to boost activity. For example, a brightly lit stairwell over a dark one may encourage employees to take the steps rather than the elevator.
Small things like improving lighting, creating signs and beatifying landscape can make all the difference. My current office department is exactly one mile from our building cafeteria. In order to promote employees to take the walk there are motivational signs, arrows and footprints guiding the way. Motivational signs, brightly colored posters or even online newsletters can easily improve employee knowledge and is also a low cost way to spread awareness and increase participation. Dr. Nelson reminds us that individuals are all motivated by different things, and employers need to cater wellness programs to everyone. Luckily in today’s culture, technology has inhibited the use of universal programming and provide us with the luxury of ‘wearables.’ Various fitness watches and phone apps can easily track our steps, cardio usage and health beat. These wearables also can instill friendly competition among employees and even incentive benefits. By setting realistic goals and forming partnerships, these strategies will provide peer support, healthy habits and more frequent progress evaluation (WHRN, 2018).
While finding the perfect work-life balance can be challenging for both employees and employer, there are some companies who have managed to promote health and productivity by engaging their employees in unique ways. Employers such as Asana and Microsoft implement wellness tactics that go above and beyond. Asana promote employees to recharge and destress by taking naps throughout the day in their designated nap rooms. They also offer unlimited PTO, three in-house nutritious culinary meals made from local produce and organic farms, immunity workshop, on-site daily yoga, and finally ‘No Meeting Wednesdays.’ Asana’s creativity and out of the box thinking allows them to achieve a work-life balance that satisfies everyone (Martis, 2018).
Similarly to Asana, Microsoft also offers some additional benefits such as smoking cessation and fitness training. They also offer on-site grocery and dry-cleaning delivery to promote healthy eating and good hygiene. While step challenges, gym memberships and EAP assistance are beneficial, by having wellness initiatives that really cater to the overall mental, physical and emotional health of the employees, it boosts employee morale, company loyalty and retention (Martis, 2018). While salary is important, recruiters should be emphasizing and promoting companies total reward packages because the small perks and wellness incentives could be the change they were looking for.
I think the biggest impact for improving physical inactivity should include an emphasis on education. With schools barely requiring physical education classes and not providing recess, it instill bad habits and behaviors at an early age that spill over into adulthood. Workplaces also need to promote healthy living more readily. It is so easy to sit in a desk chair for 8+ hours at a time while at work if we are not educated on the negative impacts of inactivity. Recess, walking groups, community support groups are a low cost way to get people moving in a healthy environment with a common goal (CDC, 2018). According to research it takes an average of 66 days to effectively form or break a new habit (Clear, 2017). Companies should create some sort of 66 day challenge were the individual documents their progress each day and analyses their results at the end of the activity.
While education and knowledge is great, there needs to be a push for ‘doing’ rather than ‘showing.’ While increases in technology may cause a raise in laziness, there are still ways that can promote exercise while having fun. Take DDR and Pokemon GO for example. DDR essentially requires the user to hit the correct color block with your foot while following the music, an easy way to accumulate steps. Pokemon GO also created a way for players to get outside to search for various characters shown on their phone. According to Harvard University research, Pokemon GO created a surge in physical activity levels and noted that users took an extra 1,000 steps per day than non-players (Bulluz, 2016). While the level of activity will decease once the game is no longer popular, it is initiatives like this that can turn temporary exercises into long term behavior change. We need to get innovative and creative with new ways to engage working adults to exercise both in and out of the workplace.
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