A recent study found that just two weeks of sedentary behavior resulted in clear negative changes to participants’ bodies. The study examined 28 participants with an average age of 32. Eighteen of the participants were women. Prior to the study, participants averaged about 10,000 steps per day, mostly from daily activity rather than structured exercise. The average body mass index (BMI) of volunteers was 24 (anything under 24.9 is considered a normal).
Researchers asked the volunteers to drastically slash their activity levels for two weeks. Participants cut their steps from the previous levels of 10,000 to around 1,500 per day.
After just two weeks, researchers found that participants’ fitness levels dropped in four key areas:
- Cardiorespiratory health dropped by 4%.
- Waist circumference increased by one-third of an inch.
- Liver fat increased by 0.2%.
- Total body fat increased by 0.5%.
In addition, insulin resistance and triglyceride levels increased slightly. The good news is that within two weeks of resuming daily activity, participants recovered their previous health.
"If you can be a shark or a turtle, be a shark—always moving,” said Dr. John Osborne, an American Heart Association spokesman. “This study showed you can lose the benefits of exercise very quickly, but the good news is that when they became sharks again, all the benefits came right back."
The Corporate Wellness Key
For employers looking to engage employees in ongoing physical activity, this study demonstrates that the “one and done” approach to physical activity in corporate wellness programs may not be enough to really impact health.
Many companies implement short-term physical activity challenges—team activity challenges, for example, or participation in local walks or runs. Such challenges have their place, but if these are the only programs offered, they won’t really encourage long-term physical activity.
To encourage an ongoing physically active lifestyle, employers should design corporate activity challenges with these suggestions in mind:
- Make it easy: Many people find it difficult to exercise before or after work due to family obligations or other factors. Make it easy for them to move every day by hosting lunchtime or working hour activities. Be sure to be flexible with time to allow employees to clean up before returning to their desks. An important takeaway from the study is that participants were not working out every day; rather, they found ways to get steps in in lieu of structure exercise.
- Have employees lead: Employees will be more likely to participate if their peers are participating. Find employees who are passionate about a particular activity and ask them to lead those efforts.
- Give it variety: Instead of limiting the physical activity to just one thing—walking, for instance—try to offer a variety of activities or challenges. Offer lunchtime yoga or other fitness classes or find local facilities near the office where employees can try something new, like rock climbing, dancing, or martial arts.
- Gamify it: Studies continue to back up the idea that adding gaming elements to wellness challenges can help improve participation and results. Offer achievable goals/targets, good prizes, and a healthy dose of competition.
- Add points for other elements: Consider including other elements to physical activity challenges. For instance, employers could offer points for eating five servings of fruits and vegetables each day or perhaps for getting a flu shot. The bulk of the points can still be offered for physical activity, but allowing points for other elements can help improve overall participation.
- Make the challenges ongoing: Individual challenges can be short-term, but employers should have a plan to follow them up with a new challenge shortly thereafter. If there’s always an activity challenge for employees to join, they are more likely to start forming a lifelong habit of daily exercise rather than just engaging in short-term change.
- Discourage a punitive outlook: Be sure employees don’t perceive that they are being punished for low or no participation in wellness challenges. People have a host of reasons for not exercising, and they may have nothing to do with the wellness program. Meet people wherever they are—physically and mentally—and encourage small improvements.
To get started, check out this list of 9 Employee Wellness Challenge Ideas Your Colleagues Won’t Hate.