How do you add more activity into your working day?

In 1950 a study was carried out on London bus drivers and conductors. The hypothesis was that inactive occupations carried increased health risks compared with active ones. What they found was that drivers were more than twice as likely to suffer from fatal heart attacks compared with their more active ticket stamping colleagues.

Sedentary lifestyle

For the decade or so that I was a personal trainer I was constantly active. Training 7 or 8 clients a day, even if I wasn’t physically working out with them I was picking up weights, jogging alongside them, or generally dancing about getting into better positions to coach them from. Nowadays when I’m not speaking in front of an audience I spend more time in coffee shops than gyms, creating new programs, writing articles and editing numerous online communities. I still workout several times a week, but for the first time in my life I have to make a conscious effort to get more activity into my daily life. When your work life is sedentary, it can sometimes feel like you’re constrained by the environment and that it’s just something you have to put up with.

Immediate and longer term impact

Sitting down for long periods of time have been linked to health conditions in many studies since the London Transport Workers Study. Not only that, it can have a more immediate impact on our performance: A sedentary lifestyle can decrease our productivity, creativity and energy, and increase our levels of stress and overwhelm in dealing with the numerous pressures we are all under.

How to increase activity in the workplace

Fortunately, getting activity into your day is simpler than you may think. This is a list of 10 suggestions for how to achieve exactly that. Some may resonate with you more than others, but the important thing is that you take action rather than simply put up with the things you cannot change.

1) Pomodoro Stand Ups

This effective productivity strategy also doubles as a great way to remind you to take regular activity breaks. Set a timer for 25 minutes, focus on one specific task for that time, then take a 5 minute break before starting again. During the 5 minute break, as an absolute minimum stand up from your chair and take a couple of nice deep breaths before sitting back down again. Even the simple act of standing up gets your muscles working and shunts a bit more oxygenated blood to your brain and peps up your metabolism. I recommend the Tomato Timers website, or the Strict Workflow Chrome extension that blocks social media and email websites during your 25 minutes of concentrated focus.

2) The Magic Piece of String Trick

Every time you stand up out of a chair, your car, your couch, your bed… every time… check in with your posture. Imagine you have a piece of string attached to the top of your head, pulling you upwards. You should feel this drawing your spine into alignment, and magically reducing the size of your waist! As we relax (AKA slouch!), gravity pushes down on all our internal organs, distending our abdominal wall. With nowhere to go, things are pushed outwards causing a bulge in the belly that isn’t only related to body fat. The Magic Piece of String Trick activates these deep abdominal muscles, pulling everything back into place, and improving your posture. At first you’ll forget to hold this constantly, but with standing up as your trigger you’ll soon start to remember more often.

3) Standing phone calls

If you spend a bit of time on the phone during the day, make an agreement with yourself that you’re going to stand up for at least the first 3 minutes of every call. Where possible, pace around the office so you get some movement going on at the same time. Your energy increases when you stand which can be an added bonus if you’re on an important call!

4) Active10

Recent research at Sheffield Hallam University suggests that it’s better for our health to get 3 blocks of 10 minutes brisk walking in a day, than aiming for 10,000 leisurely steps. It was brought to the public’s attention through a Michael Mosley program ‘The Truth About… Getting Fit’ on BBC1 at the end of January. I spoke with the lead researcher in the study, Professor Robert Copeland. He told me that whilst there wasn’t anything wrong with the 10,000 steps a day target if people aren’t including activity that raises heart and breathing rate then it’s unlikely to be doing a great deal of good for our health. Build in 10 minutes at the start of the day, at lunchtime and after work to hit these targets. Encouraging other members of your office to join you can make it easier to stick to as it becomes ‘a thing’. You can download an Active10 app from the NHS website to help you track your ‘brisk’ minutes

5) Walk to talk

If you have an email or phone call to make with a colleague and it’s possible to physically get in front of them, then seize the opportunity! It won’t always be practical or appropriate, but set yourself some rules around when to combine communication with movement.

6) Stand on your commute

I don’t go into London that often, but when I do I love to ‘tube surf’: see how far I can get without holding onto anything. I’ve only fallen over a couple of times so this is almost completely safe to do 😉 Just kidding, that’s not the strategy, though give it a go if things aren’t too crowded! Tube surfing might be a step too far, but the commute is still a good potential opportunity to stand and move about. If you know you’re going to be sat down at your desk for most of the day, why not spend a few extra minutes at the start of the day on your feet?

7) Standing meetings

Suggest your next meeting is conducted standing up instead of sitting down. As well as getting in some extra off-the-chair time, some companies report that it cuts meeting times down by 25%. I was invited to present a talk on wellbeing at Travis Perkins a few years ago, during one of their ‘weekly stand ups’. I thought it was just an interesting name for a meeting, but no, everybody really was literally standing up. See how you can incorporate this standing meetings into your schedule.

7) Walking meetings

When I was a personal trainer I used to take nervous new clients out on a 20 minute walk to talk to them about their goals instead of just sitting down at a table. I found that it made them more relaxed, and we formed a better relationship faster compared with the regular method of consultations. I took a group of coaching clients out to the Pyrenees last year on a trip called ‘The Journey’. We carried out our coaching sessions whilst walking through the mountains, on a literal and metaphorical journey. There’s something about movement and the sense of going somewhere that fires different brain networks compared with sitting down around a table. A little less convenient than just standing, but if you have 1:1s or meetings in smaller groups, could you incorporate an element of movement into meeting? Especially recommended for when you need to come up with some creative ideas.

8) Morning Micro Workouts

During my latest group workout challenge the Plankathon, where we currently have over 3000 people taking part (final day is tomorrow!), I received a number of emails from people following the 5 minute workouts in the office, together as a group. At my children’s school my daughter’s class has started to hold 10 minute ‘Wake Up Shake Up’ workouts at the start of the day. Not only is this a great ways to get people together doing something healthy, these short workouts provide a fun and energising challenge that could potentially boost productivity, creativity and teamwork without dramatically cutting into the day.

Members of the Dematic office in Banbury doing their daily planks

9) Audit your time

In the London Transport Study, they also looked at the drivers who were presenting with above average health. They found that many of them engaged in active leisure pursuits outside of work, that countered some of the effects of their day job. Our lives today, active leisure pursuits are on the decline, whilst TV and social media consumption is on the rise. Audit how you are currently using your time outside of work and assess where you might be able to get add in some extra activity or exercise. We often tell ourselves that we need time in the evening to decompress and relax before another busy day tomorrow. And although social media is just a thing – neither good nor bad – it’s easy to become addicted to it and then justify our behaviour even when it’s at the expense of something we know would be more beneficial to us.

10) If you’re not assessing, you’re guessing

Whether it’s the Active10 app, or a step counter like the Fitbit, monitoring your daily activity levels opens the lid on what’s really happening. Whether or not 10,000 steps is some kind of golden threshold beyond which you’re guaranteed eternal life, if gives you a way to measure one day or week’s activity against another. If you’re not assessing, you’re guessing, so track what you can and use it as a nudge to get that extra walk around the block when you get home if things are looking a little on the sedentary side.

Conclusions

The environment in which we live and work can sometimes make it more challenging to be as active and healthy as we might like to be. But there are always opportunities for where we can take control and start making progress towards a more active life. Look for the exceptions to the rule – the people who are getting healthy despite their constraints – and model them. Control the controllables, and take action for the sake of the short term gains in energy, positive outlook and productivity as much as the long term health benefits.

Motivational wellbeing speaking

If you’d like to find out more about how I can help motivate your organisation or team to become healthier, contact me directly through this form.