Business of Well-being

A Shift in the Exercise Focus of Corporate Wellness Programs

Many Corporate Wellness programs incorporate employee exercise programs. While these programs are clearly helpful in improving many parameters of health and decreasing many disease risk factors, new light is being shed on the importance of increasing overall activity levels in the workplace.

In this article, we will present two new studies which may indicate the need for a shift in focus from merely instituting conventional exercise programs and rewarding employee participation in these programs, to encouraging regular mild activity breaks; particularly at workplaces which require prolonged periods of desk work.

A study from the March 2012 edition of Archives of Internal Medicine concludes that prolonged sitting time increases all-cause mortality. Interestingly, this increase is INDEPENDENT of physical activity and body mass index (BMI). It is undisputed that physical activity decreases the risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

The World Health Organization recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity through the week. Corporate wellness programs have been highly instrumental in helping employees to meet this fitness goal. That said, the authors of the study state: "Even when individuals engage in 150 minutes per week of physical activity, increasing evidence suggests that what happens in the remaining approximately 6500 minutes of the waking week is important to health".

Watching television, sitting in the car or a truck, and occupations that involve prolonged sitting (including the majority of desk jobs) are associated with increased risk of death from all causes. Prolonged sitting actually seems to disrupt metabolic function. It is associated with increased triglycerides and decreased HDL ("good") cholesterol and insulin sensitivity.

Prolonged sitting also increases the risk of many types of cancer. Again, it's important to note that this disruption of metabolic function occurs independently of a person's participation in physical activity and/or BMI. Sitting at a desk for many hours a day contributes to an increased risk of death regardless of how thin you are or whether you engage in exercise-based activity.

This is bad news for many of us who have become increasingly desk-bound during the day and arm-chair bound at night! But there is good news here too: we now also know that interrupting that prolonged sitting has significant beneficial impact on many of the same cardiometabolic risk markers.

A new (admittedly small) study published in the February 2012 in Diabetes Care revealed that desk-bound employees who took two minute "mild activity breaks" every 20 minutes, improved their sugar metabolism by 30 percent! There's even more good news: the reduction in post-prandial blood sugar and insulin did not seem to vary greatly between individuals who engaged in mild activity and those who engaged in more moderate intensity activity.

There was though, a very significant variation as compared to those workers who were sedentary through the course of the work day. It seems that mild intensity movement roughly every 20 minutes or so can greatly improve metabolism.

More good news: this 20 minute work interval coincides well with the time at which it begins to become difficult to sustain attention. If employees institute a short break, particularly for physical activity, work performance, in addition to metabolic parameters, will improve. Physical activity is known to enhance mood, decrease stress, decrease fatigue levels, increases alertness and mental functioning, and improves productivity.

This is clearly a win-win situation for employers and their employees. In addition to improving health for those who already engage in regular exercise activities, this approach is particularly helpful for those employees for whom commitment to regular fitness programs is difficult.

It is far less intimidating to commit to taking a two minute, mild-intensity activity break every 20 minutes or so than to signing up for high-intensity fitness classes at the gym. Many barriers exist when it comes to participation in exercise programs. Those who are sedentary cite many arguments: exercise requires a time commitment; it can be repetitive and boring; participants may be self-conscious about exercising in public; and fatigue at the end of the day may be another excuse.

Some employees will complain about the expense of a gym membership; fears of injury; and past failures when trying to commit to such programs. All of these barriers are non-existent when it comes to engaging in short activity breaks. They do not require a heavy time commitment, and are done during the work day. Injury and self-consciousness are not concerns.

How would this play out in the workplace?

Perhaps a soft chime would remind employees to begin and end their activity breaks every 20-30 minutes. Activity breaks could be varied through the course of the day: desk-based stretching; a walk around the office space; a dash up and down the stairs; a short visit to the water cooler, or restroom on another floor; walking over to a co-worker's cubicle instead of sending an email; a phone conversation held while pacing in the office; a "walking meeting" with a colleague.

I believe the evidence is mounting in favor of a shift in the focus of corporate wellness programs from merely encouraging exercise to stressing timed activity breaks in the workplace. Employees don't necessarily need to fit in a 2-hour power trip to the gym. In fact, being more active overall is preferable to living a sedentary life with spurts of high-intensity activity.

About The Author

Dr. Leat Kuzniar, ND is a naturopathic physician with a doctorate degree in naturopathic medicine. She practices science-based natural medicine with a focus on clinical nutritional and herbal medicine. She is the director of Your Natural Path to Health Clinic in Nutley, NJ. Her passion is educating the public about how making small and meaningful changes can significantly improve health and quality of life. For more information, visit

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