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Managers should encourage exercise breaks at work, researchers say

Managers should encourage desk workers to be more active by planning two minute exercise breaks into the work day, University of Essex researchers have found.

The study, in partnership with startup Keep Fit Eat Fit, found giving staff an activity plan of short bursts of exercise helped to get them moving and reduced the fatigue of back-to-back meetings.

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Dawn Holford, who led on the research at the university’s Department of Psychology, said that the exercises worked more when they were incorporated into the working day, rather than when workers were sent blanket exercise information on email.

She argued employees are inevitably missing out on “incidental exercise” like walking to meetings while remote working.

Over the course of a week, staff at a large organisation were emailed simple exercises like squats and arm raises to incorporate throughout the working day.

Healthy recipes were also given to workers to eat nutritious food at the right time whilst working at home.  

Speaking to HR magazine, Holford said: “Our participants indicated that the two minute exercises were highly feasible and easy to do, with low barriers to entry. This was seen across a range of ages, and could benefit younger and older people, since anyone’s health can be impacted by prolonged sitting. 

“A psychological barrier to implementation is that employees often lose track of time and don’t realise they have been sitting for too long, but our study showed that having a plan to act on and reminders of the exercises could help to mitigate this.”

The advice is particularly important given this week’s guidance from the Prime Minister which recommended workers should work from home wherever possible to help stop the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

Nearly 70 people were studied, and in follow-up interviews, said they were surprised at the exercises they could do without interfering with work.  

Breaking up sedentary time has been shown to help prevent thyroid issues, cardio-vascular diseases and diabetes.

Yet the guidance can only work if managers embrace the need to take short breaks, co-founder of Keep Fit Eat Fit Angela Knox argued.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “There is a guilt factor in some that implies they think their employers may not approve of taking short breaks out of their working day - even though it is for the benefit of their health and it helps their productivity. However, we received feedback that two minutes in fact does not make any difference to the amount of work employees do.” 

Bertrand Stern-Gillet, CEO of Health Assure, warned employers to be careful when communicating any exercise initiative.

He told HR magazine: “Regular exercise can be encouraged but at no point should be forced. Some employees may be unable to participate so you risk raising claims of discrimination if they feel they are being disadvantaged due to underlying health conditions.”

He also recommended employers create an exercise rota to make sure there aren’t too many employees taking a break at the same time if employees work in a service or output sector.