Executive Health: One small step for mankind

It’s one of those pieces of news that causes you to pause and reflect moment on what the world has come to. In 2011, one of the US’ largest non-profit healthcare organisations, Kaiser Permanente, launched an online educational campaign to encourage one of humankind’s most basic activities – walking.
Walking, it seems, is something of lost art. The average American adult walks just 3000 to 5000 steps day. Kaiser Permanente is urging people to boost that number to at least 10,000, the number recommended by the World Health Organisation to improve health and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
But before you dismiss the idea of walking campaign as an “only in America” situation, consider New Zealand’s own, rather sobering, statistics on activity.
Research by the Ministry of Health has found that physical inactivity is responsible for eight percent of deaths in New Zealand – over 2600 per year.
Only 52 percent of New Zealanders meet the Government’s minimum recommended level of physical activity for health. By any standard, the minimum is not onerous – at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per day at least five days per week. This intensity can be achieved by simply walking at pace where there is slight, but noticeable, increase in breath and heart rate, but you can still carry on conversation.
The health benefits of walking are numerous. Studies report reduced blood pressure, reduced risk of certain cancers, diabetes and stroke, stronger bones, improved circulatory system, better resistance to colds, and boosted “good” cholesterol levels.
Walking has also been cited as effective in the prevention and treatment of depression. Research reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that walking 30 minutes day boosted mood in depressed patients faster than antidepressants.
So what’s stopping us from walking? Well, times have changed. Technological, business, economic and cultural forces are eating away at our opportunities – and our desire to walk.
A large proportion of jobs are sedentary, with no reason to regularly move. The internet has become major source of leisure-time activity. Work and family pressures leave many New Zealanders with little time for incidental exercise – why “waste” 30 minutes walking when you could take the car?
The Ministry of Health is urging Kiwis to change this mindset. They ask people to think of movement as an “opportunity not an inconvenience”. Employers could also embrace such thinking.
Walking has the potential to improve business productivity in number of ways. In addition to improving employees’ physical health, walking can help reduce anxiety and stress, and improve mood. Walking provides short break, which can aid in the prevention of occupational overuse syndrome. Getting together to walk is also great way to help build stronger relationships within team.
To engage employees in the idea of walking, introducing some healthy inter-team or inter-business competition into the mix might be an option. The success of pedometers in encouraging walking is behind the ‘Global Corporate Challenge’ (GCC). Participants log their daily steps on website, giving them the ability to compare results with colleagues and other businesses. Results from 2011 showed that people involved in the challenge walked on average 325 percent more than the average office worker.
One foot in front of another. It’s simple, natural and could very well save lives. It may just be the answer we’ve been looking for. M

Peter Tynan is chief executive of the Southern Cross Health Society.

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