Physical Activity

Last reviewed on 03/10/2013 10:38

Physical activity is essential for good health. Workplaces can help increase physical activity levels, and thus improve the health of employees, reduce sickness absence and increase productivity.

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The importance of physical activity

Physical inactivity has been linked to an increased risk of a range of health conditions including, coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, osteoporosis, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity and mental health problems.

On the other hand, evidence shows that undertaking physical activity can help to prevent disease, maintain a healthy weight and promote mental health and wellbeing

The Scottish Health Survey is the key tool used by the Scottish Government to measure physical activity levels in Scotland. Findings from the most recent survey (2009) show that on average 63% of adults in Scotland are not active enough for their health (68% of women and 57% of men).


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Why promote physical activity at work?

Staff ill health has cost implications for businesses through loss of production, early retirement, staff turnover and absenteeism (both through long term sick pay and the cost of temporary staff).

Back pain is the most common cause of sickness absence from work in the UK, with an estimated 16 million people affected each year, at a cost to industry of £5.7 billion each year. Meanwhile, evidence shows that physical activity can reduce a person's risk from suffering from back pain and can also aid recovery from back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders.

Work related stress, depression and anxiety form the second most common reasons for work related sickness absence, costing the UK economy between £3.7 and £7 billion each year. However, physical activity has been shown to have an anxiety-reducing effect and single sessions of moderate intensity exercise have been shown to reduce short term reactions to stress and enhance recovery from stressors.

The 2003 paper Let's Make Scotland More Active: A Strategy for Physical Activity highlights the fact that 'workplaces are an ideal setting to reach a large section of the adult population' and further notes that, "pressure of work" is one of the most common barriers to increasing physical activity ... with time being scarce, the convenience of being active at and through work can be very attractive. → View Let's Make Scotland More Active: A Strategy for Physical Activity online (external site)

Evidence suggests that physical activity can benefit an organisation because active workforces tend to:

  • report less illness and recover more quickly from the illnesses they do get
  • experience less work absence*
  • experience lower staff turnover
  • be more productive
  • have fewer industrial injuries
  • report higher levels of satisfaction with their work
  • create a positive corporate image.

* According to the Physical Activity Task Force, 2003, physically active employees take 27% fewer days of sick leave. This equates to over two days' improved attendance and a savings of £135 per employee.


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How much physical activity

In adults 18-64 physical activity includes leisure time physical activity, transportation (eg walking or cycling), occupational (ie work), household chores, play, games, sports or planned exercise, in the context of daily, family and community activities. The World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Recommendations state that in order to improve cardio respiratory and muscular fitness, bone health, reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases and depression:

  • Adults aged 18-64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or do at least 75 minutes of vigorous intensive aerobic physical activity throughout the week or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous intensity activity.
  • Aerobic activity should be performed in bouts of at least 10 minutess duration.
  • For additional health benefits, adults should increase their moderate intensity aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes per week, or engage in 150 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity per week, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous intensity activity.
  • Muscle strengthening activities should be done involving major muscle groups on two or more days a week.


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What can employers do to promote physical activity?

Employers can promote and encourage increased levels of activity in a number of ways.

It is recommended that employers develop an organisational wide plan or policy to support employees to be more physically active.

Suggestions on how to encourage employees to be more physically active include:-

  • Encouraging employees to walk, cycle or jog part of or all of the journey into work. This can be encouraged in a number of ways, such as by offering secure cycle parking, developing a travel plan and providing information on, and actively promoting, local walking and cycle routes.
  • Allowing staff to work flexible hours that can accommodate physical activity, such as longer lunch breaks.
  • Joining a corporate membership scheme with local leisure services and promoting this with staff.
  • Encouraging participation in local and national events such as sponsored walks and fun runs.
  • Arranging a team gathering or corporate away day that involves some form of physical activity that most staff would be able to participate in, such as a short organizer led walk.
  • Encouraging the use of stairs by displaying the Healthy Working Lives stair walking posters.
  • Arranging a corporate challenge with prizes or incentives that involves physical activity. For example, assigning staff into teams to compete to see who can walk/jog/run/swim/cycle the most miles in a given time period.
  • Providing staff with information on the benefits of physical activity and asking them what types of activities they would be interested in participating in.


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Further information on promoting physical activity

Nice Guidance on Physical Activity (external site) The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has developed a tool that can allow employers to calculate the potential costs and benefits of developing a workplace physical activity scheme.

Cycling Scotland (external site) National agency promoting cycle use. Site includes information on how your organisation can promote active travel and register for the Cycle Friendly Employer programme.

Paths for All (external site)Information on walking for health, including a section on promoting walking to work and in the workplace.

Sustrans (external site) Website of the UK sustainable transport charity, including information on walking and cycling routes and groups across the UK.

Jogscotland (external site) Information on Jogscotland's gentle walking, jogging and running programmes that encourage everyone to get out and be active and general advice on walking, jogging and running.


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