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Workplace Intervention Increases Employee Physical Activity Levels

Monday, May 11, 2009 Posted by Peter Janiszewski, PhD

Although it is widely recommended that adults attain at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most days of the week, over half of Americans (51.9%) and Canadians (51.0%) fail to meet this minimum threshold. While physicians may also counsel their at-risk patients regarding physical activity, these patients seldom adopt the recommended behavior. Thus, while we currently know that physical activity is good for most people, we don’t have the vaguest idea how to get most people to become active.

Any intervention that may actually work in the real world (versus a laboratory) brings us one step closer to understanding how to produce an increase in physical activity in our largely sedentary population. A recent study by Dishman and colleagues, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, gives one example of such an intervention.

In this study, participating employees at 20 Home Depot sites throughout the United States and Canada were randomized to either an intervention condition or a control condition for a 12 week duration – that is, all employees at one location were in the same condition.

The intervention consisted of two major components:

1) Personal goal setting: Participants were encouraged to progressively increases the accumulation of 10-minute blocks of exercise and pedometer steps each week, targeted toward meeting or exceeding current recommendations for physical activity: accumulation of ≥150 minutes each week and/or ≥10,000 pedometer steps each day. This information was provided to each participant in the form of a Participant Handbook.

2) Team goal setting: Employees were divided into teams of 5-20 members, each team with a designated captain. Team captains were responsible for motivating participants to set goals and earn points for their team. Posters that recorded and compared team goal attainment were displayed in break rooms and were updated every 2 weeks by the site coordinator.

To help facilitate the intervention, senior management was encouraged to endorse participation. Additionally, environmental prompts, in the form of posters, encouraged physical activity and its health benefits, emphasized the target goals for minutes and steps, and illustrated opportunities to be active, such as parking and walking, taking walk breaks, and climbing stairs.

Participating employees of Home Depot sites which were randomized to the control condition simply received monthly newsletters describing the health benefits of physical activity.

The result?

After the 12 week intervention offered to employees at eight Home Depot sites, the percent of workers who were meeting current physical activity recommendations increased from 31 to 51%. In that same time period, the number of steps taken per day by the employees (as measured by pedometers) increased by about 2000 – from 8000 to approximately 10,000 steps.

Meanwhile, physical activity levels among employees at other Home Depot locations which received only the newsletter did not change during the 12-week period.

While these findings suggest that such a strategy in other workplaces is not the panacea for North American inactivity, the results are nevertheless encouraging – a 20% increase in the number of people attaining recommended physical activity levels on a national level could have marked effects on rates of chronic diseases, life expectancy and health care expenditures.

Additionally, while weight status of employees is not reported in this study, as I have previously discussed, physical activity can improve your health even if the number of the bathroom scale refuses to budge.

So why not start a similar program at your workplace? Get yourself an activity journal and a pedometer. Split your fellow employees into teams, and work individually and collectively to increase your daily step counts – you could even throw in a prize for the winning team or the most active participant as added motivation.

Peter

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DISHMAN, R., DEJOY, D., WILSON, M., & VANDENBERG, R. (2009). Move to ImproveA Randomized Workplace Trial to Increase Physical Activity American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 36 (2), 133-141 DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2008.09.038

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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.

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