A More Active Workplace

at work taking the stairs increases fitness, health and productivity


A study finds that office intervention strategies with the aim of increasing physical activity in office workers can successfully reduce sedentary time at work. This leads to further questions such as the effect of reducing work sedentary time by a slight amount and how to improve employee retention in a health intervention program.


According to a report in US News and World Report, the average American spends 8 hours sitting on a daily basis. People with a desk job occupation tack on many additional hours a day of sitting with few breaks. These long periods of sedentary behavior are responsible for causing a wide array of health problems because metabolic parameters are driven down for an extended period of time.  However, cultural changes in the office may help workers be more active in the office. A study from Australia showed that healthy workplace interventions reduces sedentary time for office workers (Participatory Workplace Interventions Can Reduce Sedentary Time for Office Workers, 2013. Parry, et al.).  

In the study, Australian government office workers were assigned to one of three groups: active office, physical activity and office ergonomics. All three groups actively came up with a strategy for implementing their health plan. The active office group were assigned to develop a plan that involved being more active during production time. For example, the active office group implemented a communal standing desk and a treadmill desk that employees could work at.  The physical activity group was instructed to develop a plan to be more physically active during their breaks. The office ergonomics group was told to create and implement the installation of ergonomic office equipment, such as firm chairs that require muscle activation while sitting.

Together, the intervention groups slightly, but significantly, reduced sedentary time. Sedentary time across groups was reduced 1.7% across groups, the equivalent of 7-8 minutes less sedentary time per a day at work. Although the active office intervention maintained a trend to reduced sedentary time compared to the other two groups, the difference observed between the different interventions was not significant. A probable reason that the study authors were unable to generate a significant difference between groups was low power as a result of a small amount of participants finishing the study.  Across groups, and particularly the active office and physical activity intervention groups, the retention rate was alarmingly low.

treadmill desk

For an intervention to have practical applications, participants must be willing to stick through the program. The low retention rate in the discussed study was likely due to a combination of factors, one of which was probably the follow up assessments that the experiment required subjects to participate in. The government organization that had the highest retention rate provided its employees the most flexibility in scheduling work hours. Maintaining a high retention rate must be an objective of any successful office health intervention program.

Another question that arises from this study is what are the health consequences of reducing sedentary time at the workplace by 10-30 minutes? Numerous studies suggest that it is extended periods of sedentary behavior that are so detrimental to our health (Physiological and health implications of a sedentary lifestyle, 2010. Tremblay, et al.).  Furthermore, sedentary behavior is correlated with all-cause mortality (Sitting Time and Mortality from All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer, 2009. Katzmarzyk, et al.). The authors from this 2009 study concluded that breaking up extended periods of sedentary behavior would likely have positive affects on individual health indicators and all-cause mortality.

Finally, being healthier at work can save time and therefore increase productivity. A study published in the Canadian Medical Journal followed hospital workers during work. They found that taking the stairs rather than the elevator saved each worker an average of 15 minutes over the course of the workday (Elevators or stairs? 2011.  Shah, et al.). Of course, one’s work environment will change how effective taking the stairs is for increasing productivity, but the point is staying healthy does not have to be a sacrifice.

In summary, it appears that workplace physical activity intervention programs could cause significant health benefits to participants if implemented successfully.

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