Work­ing to­wards get up and go

With 54% of work­ers over­weight, com­pa­nies are be­ing en­cour­aged to pro­mote fit­ness in seden­tary staff. Sharon Ni Chonchuir talks to Prof Neil Moyna who’s head­ing up this work­place fit­ness chal­lenge

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Cover Story -

ARE you sit­ting com­fort­ably? Con­sid­er­ing most of us spend up to nine hours a day sit­ting down, it’s quite likely that you are.

Like Homer Simp­son, most of us start our days sit­ting in the car as we drive to work. There, we sit at desks ex­cept for when we have to sit through meet­ings. A grow­ing num­ber of us even eat lunch sit­ting in front of our com­put­ers.

At the end of the work­day, we get back in our cars, drive home, and col­lapse onto the sofa where we watch the lat­est boxsets or scroll through our phones.

This seden­tary life­style is lead­ing to se­ri­ous health prob­lems. Ir­ish Life Health car­ries out an­nual work­place health screen­ings and in 2016 it found 54% of work­ers were over­weight.

Weight wasn’t their only prob­lem. Pro­longed sit­ting has also been shown to slow me­tab­o­lism and to af­fect the way the body con­trols sugar lev­els, blood pres­sure, and the break­down of fat, all of which con­trib­ute to an in­creased risk of di­a­betes, heart dis­ease, stroke, and a range of other con­di­tions.

On EastEn­ders, Ian Beale is cur­rently deal­ing with a po­ten­tial di­ag­no­sis of di­a­betes and even though he’s a fic­tional char­ac­ter, his sto­ry­line is quite com­mon in the real world. This was proven by research car­ried out by the Univer­sity of Le­ices­ter in 2012. Af­ter analysing 18 stud­ies with a to­tal of 794,577 par­tic­i­pants, it found a big dif­fer­ence in health out­comes be­tween the most and least seden­tary. Those who spent the most time sit­ting down had a 90% greater risk of death linked to heart dis­ease, a 112% greater risk of di­a­betes and a 147% greater risk of heart at­tack/stroke.

Ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Niall Moyna, head of the School of Health and Hu­man Per­for­mance at Dublin City Univer­sity, this has been a prob­lem for years but it’s now ap­proach­ing cri­sis point.

“Pro­fes­sor Jerry Mor­ris pub­lished a study in 1953 which com­pared the health out­comes of driv­ers and con­duc­tors on Lon­don buses,” says Moyna. “It found that con­duc­tors were 30% less likely to suf­fer from heart dis­ease be­cause they spent their days walk­ing in­stead of sit­ting down.

“We’ve be­come even more seden­tary as a re­sult of the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion of the past 20 years and the health im­pli­ca­tions are even more se­ri­ous. Now we are the first gen­er­a­tion that has to find ways of en­gi­neer­ing ac­tiv­ity into our lives.”

This is what Prof Moyna has been try­ing to help peo­ple do. He de­vel­oped the Schools’ Fit­ness Chal­lenge which has seen the par­tic­i­pa­tion of 120,000 stu­dents in sec­ondary schools since its in­tro­duc­tion in 2013. Its aim is to high­light the im­por­tance of fit­ness to health and to make phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity more of a pri­or­ity for young peo­ple.

Ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­o­gist Dr Sarah Kelly was also in­volved in de­vel­op­ing the chal­lenge. “So few chil­dren and ado­les­cents are phys­i­cally ac­tive these days,” she says. “They don’t even meet the min­i­mum re­quire­ment of one hour of ac­tiv­ity a day.

“The chal­lenge aims to help them to es­tab­lish good habits while they are young and in­crease the like­li­hood that they will con­tinue to be phys­i­cally ac­tive down the line.”

The Schools’ Fit­ness Chal­lenge was such a suc­cess that Prof Moyna de­cided to ap­ply it to the work­place. Last year saw the launch of the Ir­ish Life Health Work­place Fit­ness Chal­lenge which he and Dr Kelly de­signed to in­spire Ire­land’s work­force to in­crease its level of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity in or­der to be­come fit­ter and health­ier.

Some 130 com­pa­nies signed up for the chal­lenge in its first year, in­creas­ing to 286 for this year’s chal­lenge which started on May 22. For six weeks, the work­force of these com­pa­nies will be en­cour­aged to take small but con­sis­tent steps to im­prove their fit­ness. At the be­gin­ning of the chal­lenge, they mea­sure their fit­ness us­ing the Move Your MET (Meta­bolic Equiv­a­lent Task) app, which is free to down­load and sim­ple to use. All you have to do is in­put your data and it cal­cu­lates your MET score. It’s then up to you to im­prove that score by be­com­ing more phys­i­cally ac­tive.

“Your MET score is one of the best in­de­pen­dent pre­dic­tors of your cur­rent health and longevity,” ex­plains Prof Moyna. “It’s an in­te­grated mea­sure of your lungs, car­dio­vas­cu­lar sys­tem and mus­cles. I con­sider it the gold stan­dard mea­sure of fit­ness.”

Even a small im­prove­ment in your score can make a big dif­fer­ence. “One MET point in­crease means a 15% re­duc­tion in the risk of a car­dio­vas­cu­lar in­ci­dent and a 13% re­duc­tion in the risk of pre­ma­ture death,” says Prof Moyna.

What makes this chal­lenge so in­ter­est­ing is that the onus isn’t com­pletely on the par­tic­i­pants. Com­pa­nies are also be­ing called upon to sup­port their work­force.

This makes eco­nomic sense be­cause the ill health caused by our seden­tary ways has a neg­a­tive ef­fect on busi­ness. Ac­cord­ing to IBEC, ab­sen­teeism costs the av­er­age Ir­ish com­pany €818 per worker per year or a com­bined to­tal of €1.5bn in lost pro­duc­tiv­ity.

“We’ve seen some phe­nom­e­nal ideas com­ing from the com­pa­nies in­volved,” says Prof Moyna.

“They re­ar­range their of­fices so that the wa­ter foun­tain or the printer is fur­ther away so their em­ploy­ees have to get up and walk around.

“If meet­ings are be­tween two or three peo­ple, they have those meet­ings while walk­ing rather than while sit­ting. Some com­pa­nies in­tro­duce stand­ing desks.”

This change in com­pany cul­ture is vi­tal, ac­cord­ing to Dr Kelly. “Ev­ery­one is re­spon­si­ble for their own health and fit­ness but if com­pany cul­ture changes and it’s ac­cept­able for peo­ple to walk around while on the phone or for meet­ings to be held on a walk in the park, ev­ery­one will reap the ben­e­fits. Seven in ten em­ploy­ees say that they strug­gle to find the time to fit in ex­er­cise but if com­pa­nies help with this, em­ploy­ees would be hap­pier and health­ier and em­ploy­ers would reap the fi­nan­cial re­wards.”

Per­sonal trainer, MD of Fitvi­sion, and for­mer pro­fes­sional foot­baller Mark O’Reilly works with com­pa­nies to help them de­velop fit­ness pro­grammes. “More and more com­pa­nies are in­vest­ing in the well­ness of their em­ploy­ees,” he says.

“Take the likes of Pri­mark for ex­am­ple. It has 750 peo­ple in its head of­fice and we go in to teach classes and give sem­i­nars in their ex­er­cise and per­sonal train­ing stu­dios. This makes sense for them be­cause fit­ter and health­ier em­ploy­ees are more pro­duc­tive and if they’re hap­pier in their work, you’re less likely to lose them.”

O’Reilly is also im­pressed with the Move Your MET app. “What I like about it is that it’s ac­ces­si­ble to ev­ery­one and it’s not just based on what you weigh,” he says. “It takes in all as­pects of health and fit­ness. We use it as part of our fit­ness pro­grammes.”

Like Prof Moyna and Dr Kelly, he be­lieves that small changes can make a big dif­fer­ence to over­all health. “A lot of peo­ple are un­der the mis­ap­pre­hen­sion that they have to ex­er­cise for a long time to achieve worth­while re­sults,” he says. “But hour­long work­outs are not nec­es­sary.

“A 15-20-minute ses­sion three or four days a week will suf­fice to move your MET.”

Ex­er­cis­ing for longer can ac­tu­ally be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. “If you ex­er­cise for longer than 30 min­utes, you’ll raise your cor­ti­sol lev­els too much,” says O’Reilly. “Be­cause most of us are lack­ing in sleep and work­ing too hard, our stress hor­mones are high any­way and over­train­ing can make this worse. Twenty min­utes or so of ex­er­cise is the op­ti­mum.”

Even for­mer fit­ness supremo Gor­don D’Arcy is learn­ing just how dif­fi­cult it can be to re­sist the lure of a seden­tary life­style. The for­mer rugby in­ter­na­tional is an am­bas­sador for the Work­place Fit­ness Chal­lenge and ad­mits that it’s dif­fi­cult to make time for fit­ness.

“Now that ex­er­cise is no longer my job, I have to fit it in around both a busy work sched­ule and two chil­dren un­der two,” he says.

“The great thing about this chal­lenge is that it shows you that small con­sis­tent ex­er­cise re­ally makes a huge dif­fer­ence. It’s not about be­ing a top ath­lete or sweat­ing it out in the gym for hours. Build­ing reg­u­lar ex­er­cise into your sched­ule re­ally re­sults in a life­long health boost.”

Prof Moyna hopes that the Work­place Fit­ness Chal­lenge and other pro­grammes such as the ones de­signed by Mark O’Reilly will lead to a rise in aware­ness among the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. “We don’t have to be world-class ath­letes,” he says. “Even get­ting up and mov­ing around for two min­utes can make a dif­fer­ence.”

It’s not just Prof Moyna who thinks this. Research from Nasa has found that stand­ing up for two min­utes 16 times a day while at work is an ef­fec­tive way of main­tain­ing bone and muscle den­sity. It’s also a proven way to lose weight. If you stand up for an ex­tra 30 min­utes a day for a whole year, you will lose an es­ti­mated 5.2lbs.

“Ex­er­cise is medicine,” says Prof Moyna. “If there were a pill that had the same ef­fect as ex­er­cise, it would be the most pre­scribed pill in the uni­verse. What the schools’ and work­place chal­lenges are try­ing to do is to raise aware­ness of how easy it is to lead health­ier and more pro­duc­tive lives. It’s as sim­ple as get­ting up and mov­ing around a lit­tle bit more.”

Pro­fes­sor Niall Moyna: ‘Even get­ting up and mov­ing around for two min­utes can make a dif­fer­ence.’

Pic­ture: Naoise Cul­hane

Inset above: Pro­fes­sor Niall Moyna, head of the School of Health and Hu­man Per­for­mance at DCU; Jim Dow­dall, MD Ir­ish Life Health; Dr Sarah Kelly, ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­o­gist and DCU lec­turer; and for­mer rugby great Gor­don D’Arcy at the be­gin­ning of the Ir­ish Life Health ‘Ur­ban Hik­ing’ trail, en­cour­ag­ing work­ers to em­brace their ur­ban sur­round­ings as the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment for ex­er­cise as they launched 2017 Ir­ish Life Health Work­place Fit­ness Chal­lenge.

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