Tackling Sedentary Behaviors: Interventions for Encouraging Workplace Health

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workplace health

Modern workplaces are becoming increasingly sedentary in nature, putting the health of many employees at risk. A Finnish study recently evaluated an intervention program designed to decrease sedentary behavior and improve workplace health in employees.

Sedentary behavior (SB), defined as excessive periods of inactivity, increases the risk of several chronic diseases. Although this can be countered by physical activity (PA), many individuals are employed in sedentary jobs and find meeting PA recommendations increasingly difficult. Trials promoting workplace health strategies have produced varying results. A recent study in BMC Public Health described a one-year intervention program designed to help small and medium-sized (50 to 249) businesses plan and implement a multi-level program to increase workplace PA and decrease SB.

The Finnish Sports Collaboration coordinated recruitment of 12 workplaces with a total of 396 employees throughout Finland. A team nominated within each workplace was responsible for planning and implementing strategies to enhance PA and reduce SB at three levels: the organization, working units and employees. Changes in PA and SB were assessed by a questionnaire at baseline and 12-month follow-up; however, only 186 (47%) employees completed this at both time points. Participants were also asked to wear an accelerometer during waking hours for seven consecutive days and complete a diary at baseline and follow-up, yet data for both time points was available for only 147 (37%) participants. Socioeconomic factors including age, sex, education level, health, working times and physical requirements of employment were also taken into account.

Each workplace introduced between two and eleven strategies, implemented across all three levels in six workplaces, across two levels in five workplaces and one level in one workplace. Common interventions included sit-stand workstations, communal exercise equipment and exercise classes. Neither the number of strategies implemented nor the number of levels involved affected changes in PA or SB. Overall, workplace SB decreased by 22% and workplace PA increased by 6.8%, corresponding to increased daily steps and light-intensity PA. The authors noted that sustaining these results could benefit workplace health. In contrast, there was a 6% decrease in active commuters during the 12-month period and a 3.2% decrease in daily leisure PA. SB did not change during transportation or leisure periods.

Unfortunately, because a control group was not included, the positive changes in PA and SB cannot be definitively attributed to intervention alone. Further controlled studies with more participants are needed to confirm these results. Despite this limitation, the results suggest that it is possible to instigate changes in workplace health as long as the correct systems are in place. Allowing employees a voice in the planning process is particularly important for successfully implementing workplace changes. Programs that work for one workplace may not work for another, as demonstrated by the differing number of strategies chosen by each team.

Written by Natasha Tetlow, PhD

Aittasalo M, Livson M, Lusa S, Romo A, Vähä-Ypyä H, Tokola K, et al. Moving to business – changes in physical activity and sedentary behavior after multilevel intervention in small and medium-sized workplaces. BMC Public Health. 2017;17:319. Available at: doi: 10.1186/s12889-017-4229-4.