Fit to work: Why it pays to be active during office hours

With 54% of workers overweight, companies are being encouraged to promote fitness in sedentary staff. Sharon Ni Chonchuir talks to Prof Neil Moyna who’s heading up this workplace fitness challenge.

ARE you sitting comfortably? Considering most of us spend up to nine hours a day sitting down, it’s quite likely that you are.

Like Homer Simpson, most of us start our days sitting in the car as we drive to work. There, we sit at desks except for when we have to sit through meetings. A growing number of us even eat lunch sitting in front of our computers.

At the end of the workday, we get back in our cars, drive home, and collapse onto the sofa where we watch the latest box sets or scroll through our phones.

This sedentary lifestyle is leading to serious health problems. Irish Life Health carries out annual workplace health screenings and in 2016 it found 54% of workers were overweight.

Weight wasn’t their only problem. Prolonged sitting has also been shown to slow metabolism and to affect the way the body controls sugar levels, blood pressure, and the breakdown of fat, all of which contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and a range of other conditions.

On EastEnders, Ian Beale is currently dealing with a potential diagnosis of diabetes and even though he’s a fictional character, his storyline is quite common in the real world. 

This was proven by research carried out by the University of Leicester in 2012. After analysing 18 studies with a total of 794,577 participants, it found a big difference in health outcomes between the most and least sedentary. 

Those who spent the most time sitting down had a 90% greater risk of death linked to heart disease, a 112% greater risk of diabetes and a 147% greater risk of heart attack/stroke.

According to Professor Niall Moyna, head of the School of Health and Human Performance at Dublin City University, this has been a problem for years but it’s now approaching crisis point.

Professor Niall Moyna: ‘Even getting up and moving around for two minutes can make a difference.’
Professor Niall Moyna: ‘Even getting up and moving around for two minutes can make a difference.’

“Professor Jerry Morris published a study in 1953 which compared the health outcomes of drivers and conductors on London buses,” says Moyna. 

“It found that conductors were 30% less likely to suffer from heart disease because they spent their days walking instead of sitting down.

“We’ve become even more sedentary as a result of the digital revolution of the past 20 years and the health implications are even more serious. Now we are the first generation that has to find ways of engineering activity into our lives.”

This is what Prof Moyna has been trying to help people do. He developed the Schools’ Fitness Challenge which has seen the participation of 120,000 students in secondary schools since its introduction in 2013. 

Its aim is to highlight the importance of fitness to health and to make physical activity more of a priority for young people.

Exercise physiologist Dr Sarah Kelly was also involved in developing the challenge. 

“So few children and adolescents are physically active these days,” she says. 

“They don’t even meet the minimum requirement of one hour of activity a day.

“The challenge aims to help them to establish good habits while they are young and increase the likelihood that they will continue to be physically active down the line.”

The Schools’ Fitness Challenge was such a success that Prof Moyna decided to apply it to the workplace. 

Last year saw the launch of the Irish Life Health Workplace Fitness Challenge which he and Dr Kelly designed to inspire Ireland’s workforce to increase its level of physical activity in order to become fitter and healthier.

Professor Niall Moyna, head of the School of Health and Human Performance at DCU; Jim Dowdall, MD Irish Life Health; Dr Sarah Kelly, exercise physiologist and DCU lecturer; and former rugby great Gordon D’Arcy at the beginning of the Irish Life Health ‘Urban Hiking’ trail, encouraging workers to embrace their urban surroundings as the perfect environment for exercise as they launched 2017 Irish Life Health Workplace Fitness Challenge. Picture: Naoise Culhane.
Professor Niall Moyna, head of the School of Health and Human Performance at DCU; Jim Dowdall, MD Irish Life Health; Dr Sarah Kelly, exercise physiologist and DCU lecturer; and former rugby great Gordon D’Arcy at the beginning of the Irish Life Health ‘Urban Hiking’ trail, encouraging workers to embrace their urban surroundings as the perfect environment for exercise as they launched 2017 Irish Life Health Workplace Fitness Challenge. Picture: Naoise Culhane.

Some 130 companies signed up for the challenge in its first year, increasing to 286 for this year’s challenge which started on May 22. For six weeks, the workforce of these companies will be encouraged to take small but consistent steps to improve their fitness. 

At the beginning of the challenge, they measure their fitness using the Move Your MET (Metabolic Equivalent Task) app, which is free to download and simple to use. 

All you have to do is input your data and it calculates your MET score. It’s then up to you to improve that score by becoming more physically active.

“Your MET score is one of the best independent predictors of your current health and longevity,” explains Prof Moyna. 

“It’s an integrated measure of your lungs, cardiovascular system and muscles. I consider it the gold standard measure of fitness.”

Even a small improvement in your score can make a big difference.

“One MET point increase means a 15% reduction in the risk of a cardiovascular incident and a 13% reduction in the risk of premature death,” says Prof Moyna.

What makes this challenge so interesting is that the onus isn’t completely on the participants. Companies are also being called upon to support their workforce.

This makes economic sense because the ill health caused by our sedentary ways has a negative effect on business. According to IBEC, absenteeism costs the average Irish company €818 per worker per year or a combined total of €1.5bn in lost productivity.

“We’ve seen some phenomenal ideas coming from the companies involved,” says Prof Moyna.

“They rearrange their offices so that the water fountain or the printer is further away so their employees have to get up and walk around.

“If meetings are between two or three people, they have those meetings while walking rather than while sitting. Some companies introduce standing desks.”

This change in company culture is vital, according to Dr Kelly. 

“Everyone is responsible for their own health and fitness but if company culture changes and it’s acceptable for people to walk around while on the phone or for meetings to be held on a walk in the park, everyone will reap the benefits. 

"Seven in ten employees say that they struggle to find the time to fit in exercise but if companies help with this, employees would be happier and healthier and employers would reap the financial rewards.”

Personal trainer, MD of Fitvision, and former professional footballer Mark O’Reilly works with companies to help them develop fitness programmes. “More and more companies are investing in the wellness of their employees,” he says.

“Take the likes of Primark for example. It has 750 people in its head office and we go in to teach classes and give seminars in their exercise and personal training studios. This makes sense for them because fitter and healthier employees are more productive and if they’re happier in their work, you’re less likely to lose them.”

O’Reilly is also impressed with the Move Your MET app. 

“What I like about it is that it’s accessible to everyone and it’s not just based on what you weigh,” he says. 

“It takes in all aspects of health and fitness. We use it as part of our fitness programmes.”

Like Prof Moyna and Dr Kelly, he believes that small changes can make a big difference to overall health. 

“A lot of people are under the misapprehension that they have to exercise for a long time to achieve worthwhile results,” he says. “But hour-long workouts are not necessary.

“A 15-20-minute session three or four days a week will suffice to move your MET.”

Exercising for longer can actually be counterproductive. 

“If you exercise for longer than 30 minutes, you’ll raise your cortisol levels too much,” says O’Reilly. 

“Because most of us are lacking in sleep and working too hard, our stress hormones are high anyway and overtraining can make this worse. Twenty minutes or so of exercise is the optimum.”

Even former fitness supremo Gordon D’Arcy is learning just how difficult it can be to resist the lure of a sedentary lifestyle. The former rugby international is an ambassador for the Workplace Fitness Challenge and admits that it’s difficult to make time for fitness.

“Now that exercise is no longer my job, I have to fit it in around both a busy work schedule and two children under two,” he says.

“The great thing about this challenge is that it shows you that small consistent exercise really makes a huge difference. It’s not about being a top athlete or sweating it out in the gym for hours. Building regular exercise into your schedule really results in a lifelong health boost.”

Prof Moyna hopes that the Workplace Fitness Challenge and other programmes such as the ones designed by Mark O’Reilly will lead to a rise in awareness among the general population. 

“We don’t have to be world-class athletes,” he says. “Even getting up and moving around for two minutes can make a difference.”

It’s not just Prof Moyna who thinks this. Research from Nasa has found that standing up for two minutes 16 times a day while at work is an effective way of maintaining bone and muscle density. 

It’s also a proven way to lose weight. If you stand up for an extra 30 minutes a day for a whole year, you will lose an estimated 5.2lbs.

“Exercise is medicine,” says Prof Moyna. 

“If there were a pill that had the same effect as exercise, it would be the most prescribed pill in the universe. What the schools’ and workplace challenges are trying to do is to raise awareness of how easy it is to lead healthier and more productive lives. It’s as simple as getting up and moving around a little bit more.”

Walk it off

Irish Life Health has launched a series of Urban Hike Maps to show workers in Dublin, Cork, and Galway how they can make use of city centre locations for enjoyable exercise. These maps are downloadable on www.irishlifehealth.ie/moveyourmet/resource-centre 

Mark O’Reilly, a personal trainer and MD of Fitvision, hopes these maps make it easier for people to incorporate extra physical activity into their daily routines.

“The trend now is away from people being like sardines in a gym,” he says.

“It’s all about getting out at lunchtime for a walk or going for a run before or after work. We are so lucky to have these facilities right on our doorstep.

We’re based in Ballsbridge and there’s an Urban Hike route out there. Elsewhere in Dublin, there’s the cycle path from Clontarf out to Howth.” 

O’Reilly would like to help everyone to understand that it’s easier than they think to improve their fitness. 

“All you have to do is a little but to do it often and it adds up.

“Start by walking that little bit more. Get off the bus one stop before work and walk the rest of the way. Get up to talk about something with a work colleague rather than sending them an email.

You’ll soon notice a difference and the most inactive people will notice the biggest difference in the shortest period of time.”


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