Well-being Wednesday: physical inactivity and workplace culture.
I was chatting with friends through text about a sprint triathlon I had signed up for this coming August. She lamented that she was not physically active (and hence would pass on joining in on the tri training) secondary to work demands keeping her sedentary and at her desk. Added to parenting responsibilities, she could not fit in her desired minimum of exercise.
I am sure she’s not alone, now that many work places are accommodating working from home. Spheres of personal time and space have blurred into professional, making it challenging to reclaim your own self care time and space and turn off the work mindset.
However, physical activity is critical to physical health (and by extension, our mental, spiritual, social, sexual wellness as well), so critical in fact that physical exercise is considered a vital sign. On par with respiratory rate, heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure, our levels of activity are a significant indicator of physical wellness (see https://www.cdc.gov/Pcd/issues/2017/17_0030.htm ). Yet the majority of adults (~80%) do not meet the recommended weekly activity recommendations of 150 min of moderate intensity aerobic activity and strength training at least 2 days a week. Add on covid structural changes – less movement at the home office and the common lament of reduced personal time and space that I hear from clients and friends, I suspect that greater numbers of adults find approximating these activity minimums.
There are a couple other facets worth noting when considering exercise and health. One is that sedentary time, or what is commonly referred to as physical inactivity, is a separate indicator of health from physical activity. Studies have shown physical inactivity can be as bad for your health as smoking via increased mortality risk, is associated with noncommunicable disease and significant economic burden (not to mention quality of life limitations), and that after a certain amount of inactivity, particularly TV watching, you cannot exercise away the detriments to your health. Further, the levels of exercise required to attempt to mitigate the impacts of sedentary behavior are beyond the minimal recommendations of 150 min/week. Yikes. For those strapped for time and required to be inactive for work, this is not good news.
Another consideration: there are structural and institutional challenges (ie racism, ableism, classism) that limit access to exercise. This consideration moves some of the burden off the individual to systems-based thinking, and researchers examining physical inactivity note that we need cultural and structural changes, essentially large scaling up public health approaches.
How can we make activity accessible to more people? Education (but this still places most of the burden on the individual and is small scale) to cultural shifts, which is related to this post. Part of the solution is making employers aware of the critical nature of physical activity (and inactivity) and creating a workplace mentality that accommodates and encourages movement throughout the day. For example: perhaps you can take your calls with the camera off while walking your dog?, Or using a workstation on a home treadmill?, Bike to work if you are going in to the office?, Have a shorter work day or work week to improve employee work/life balance?, Reduce work-based expectations of always “being on” and reachable for work?
Physical activity improves health, both in the short term by boosting the immune system, and the long term by minimizing risk for NCDs, all of which reduce sick time and healthcare costs. Work places should appreciate those benefits, at the very least from a financial perspective (ideally a human rights one too). However, the problem with prevention based measures for health is that you cannot easily prove you prevented some negative outcome with, for our example, exercise. The upfront costs of prevention (here, workplace and community changes – culturally and structurally) can inhibit the pursuit of pro-health measures.
Until we can change our culture that emphasizes work (really, overwork) as equated with merit and personal worth and exercise as “extra” and frivolous, we will have to engage in personal or individual solutions. Some were mentioned above like biking to work, walking on calls, or treadmill workstations, but all of these have added, individually burdensome assumptions – you have the extra time, a bike, safe trail systems, a safe neighborhood to walk in, portable technology for work, the space and money for a treadmill. You can work with a personal trainer or physical therapist, such as myself, to come up with individualized solutions that fit your budget and space needs. You can work with your employer to see if, in addition to encouraging exercise, they can incorporate a camera’s off culture – turning off the camera while tuning into meeting can allow you the ability to move around your house and be active – cleaning, cooking, etc, anything that isn’t sitting. If you have extra to give to others, you can partner with community, workplace, and public health organizations that encourage exercise and provide for systems-based solutions, like helping your community become more walkable so activity can be easily incorporated into daily living (see: https://bikewalkkc.org/blog/2020/04/is-your-neighborhood-walkable-how-to-conduct-a-walkability-audit/ and https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpao/features/walk-friendly-communities/index.html )
How do you incorporate physical activity into your work/life balance? Is it easier or more difficult with covid-related changes to your work situation/set up?
I wish you all luck and a starting place in finding solutions for balancing your life needs within your individual reach, and I wish for all of us cultural change that recognizes the priority of physical activity.
For more information on racism in the exercise industry, see http://ignitewell-being.com/racial-disparities-in-the-exercise-and-fitness-industry/
For more information on ableism, see http://ignitewell-being.com/fit-enough-to-dismantle-ableism/
The above content is written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT); copyright protected, please cite accordingly. The picture is from Pexels. To work with me or for more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org Please consider supporting via Patreon https://www.patreon.com/ignitewellbeing
*Please note that none of the above information is specific medical advice, but are educational resources. If you have concerns about your health, please contact a trusted healthcare professional*