HEALTHY WORKSTYLES : Walk Your Way … To A Healthier Workplace

Last year an OECD report ranked New Zealand as the third-fattest nation in the developed world behind Mexico and the United States. That’s right – the country once touted for its active population and healthy, outdoor lifestyle is getting fatter.

Are our workplaces part of the problem?
Sedentary occupations can contribute to number of health problems including weight problems, chronic fatigue, increased stress and anxiety, and increased risk of heart disease.
The statistics are scary. But new research shows how this trend toward plumper population can be mitigated – and it’s not rocket science. One simple solution is less time on the seat and more on the feet.
Instead of walking away from the looming health crisis in this country, an increasing number of New Zealand workplaces are encouraging employees to walk their way to health. There is no doubt that as employers and managers, we can play very significant role in improving the health of New Zealand – starting from the ground floor with workplace initiatives that have already proved their worth.
One of the simplest ways to make difference to the health of your workforce is to encourage some sort of regular physical activity. The World Health Organisation recommends white-collar workers should aim to take 10,000 steps day to improve their health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. For an average person, 10,000 steps equates to approximately an hour and half of constant walking, quite bit more than the 1000 to 3000 steps day walked by the average worker.
While casual walking groups may be effective over the summer months when people are keen to get outside and enjoy the weather, the winter months offer greater incentive hurdles. That’s when workplaces may need to consider something that both challenges and motivates staff to want to get active.
In May 2009, 60,000 employees worldwide embarked on the trip of lifetime without taking single day of leave from work. What is more, the only luggage they took was their pedometer.
These employees were all participants in the Global Corporate Challenge (GCC), which is the world’s largest corporate health initiative.
The challenge encourages employees to be more aware of their activity, and inactivity, through their pedometer reading. Participants need to find opportunities to reach the recommended target of 10,000 steps per day from structured and unstructured activities such as taking the stairs, walking to the bus stop or train station, walking to colleague’s desk instead of sending an email, going for short walk during lunch break and being more active before or after work.
It gets employees moving during the coldest months of the year – period that is generally associated with the indoors, decreased physical activity and tendency to indulge in comfort foods.
While encouraging staff to get more physical activity into their daily lives, the question remains; are workplace walking programmes effective? The simple answer appears to be yes!
Since 2008, researchers at Monash University in Australia have been analysing data collected from 757 Australian Global Corporate Challenge (GCC) participants as part of longitudinal study into the long-term effects of workplace wellness interventions and whether physical activity-only interventions are effective.
The participants completed questionnaires before starting the challenge, at the completion of it (four months), and again eight months after the challenge had finished.
Key findings reveal:
• On average individuals involved were around 3.5 times more active than the average white-collar worker.
• Participants exercised for an average of 87 minutes day for four months – almost three times the standard recommendation.
• Participants walked an average of seven kilometres day for four months.
• The average daily step count across the 60,000 participants was 10,900 steps.
Additional findings reveal the benefits of taking part in the GCC programme were not just short-term.
Improvements in blood pressure, waist circumference and BMI (body mass index) were still prevalent in participants eight months after the GCC had finished.
Anna Peeters, senior research fellow at Monash University, said the study is the first to show that positive behavioural changes made during the GCC instigated profound impact that sees participants maintain sufficient levels of exercise well after the programme’s completion.
At Southern Cross we have certainly noticed these behavioural changes.
Our employees have had three winters of pedometer walking challenges. In 2009 we had over 90 percent participation and 455 million steps were walked – the equivalent of 182 trips across New Zealand. And, as part of our overall internal wellness programme, the walking challenge contributed towards reduction in staff absence and body mass indexes.
As well as the obvious health benefits we found it great for staff morale and really effective team-building activity.
Research has shown that employees who make positive changes to their health through workplace wellness initiatives are likely to sustain these healthy habits – not just in the workplace but at home too. The ripple effect through introducing healthy habits to family members can also be significant.
There is no need to remind managers that healthy workforce is vital to the health of our economy. While it is easy to sit back and lament the fact it is outside of our control, why not take the opportunity to get your staff active.
A healthier, happier and more productive workforce benefits your staff, your business and New Zealand.

Peter Tynan is chief executive Health Insurance, Southern Cross Medical Care Society.



The Global Corporate Challenge

• The GCC is 16-week health and wellbeing programme that runs from May to August.
• It encourages participants to aim for 10,000 steps day.
• Workplaces can enter teams of seven who need to work, support, encourage and motivate each other for the duration of the challenge.
• Employees are each given pedometer and every day enter their step count into dedicated website which then converts the steps to kilometre distance and plots the team’s progression along virtual tour of the world.
• There is leader board so teams can see how they compare against other teams in their workplace, their industry, country or the world.
• In 2010 an estimated 150,000 participants from 1200 organisations in 75 countries around the world will take up the challenge.

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