The risks of prolonged sitting and unhealthy work behavior are prominent and have been studied well. According to a study done by MayoClinic, prolonged sitting is linked with a number of health concerns. They include obesity and a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels — that make up metabolic syndrome. Too much sitting overall and prolonged periods of sitting also seem to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Just like many other bad habits (like smoking, cookies, candy, and alcohol), the risks don’t really make us change our behavior. There are many reasons that can explain why. However, all of these bad habits have to do with the associations we make in our mind. Let’s go to our brain.
The brain and its associations
Our brain is one big machine of making associations (source). Every time you see an unfamiliar object, the synapses in your brain make new connections. Your brain tries to associate this object with something you have seen before. For example, if you see something weird with wheels, you are likely to associate it with a car or a bike. By making associations, you can give objects a place in your mind. Fun fact, you can’t think of things that aren’t associated with anything you already know, you just make new combinations of existing thoughts when you invent things. Just like the fact that you can’t imagine a new (base) color.
But the more we do the things we do daily, the stronger (thicker) the associations become in our mind. All day long we associate the objects and places we see with certain activities. For example, when you look at your couch at home, you associate it with relaxation, watching TV, or/and eating snacks. Your bed is associated with sleeping and resting (that is why they say you shouldn’t watch TV in bed, because then you mess things up). While your work is associated with being productive, focus, and working. The associations with the things we see the most, are very strong. We are very connected to the places we know best. Namely, our whole identity/behavior flips when being in different places. A businessman who works at an office-building can be a formal, confident man with a deep voice and difficult jargon. But onces he enters his home and see’s his wife and kids, he can become a very different person. It’s almost like you are a different person when being in different places with different people. Just imagine the awkward situations when you have your child, partner, and colleague’s together in one room. How do you behave? Who is the true you? Let’s not get philosophical here.
Thus, you associate your work with productivity, focus, status, seriousness, and formality (at most offices). The work environment is often not associated with physical activity. Like a footballfield is made for football, a workplace is made for work. Therefore, you just can’t be physical active at work. But there are several reasons for this. It is the workplace. But it is also the mind. And these two go together. Because we don’t exercise at work, the workplace becomes less fitting for it, and because are workplace is not fitting for exercise, we don’t exercise it in it. Because of this positive feedback loop, work and physical activity are quite far apart in our mind. We don’t have equipment to exercise at our work. We don’t wear clothes ready to exercise. And we are afraid that our colleague’s will judge us once becoming a little bit active. To become active, many people just need to be at the exercise track, in their exercise clothes, with their exercise-friends to engage in any form of physical activity. People are quite hypocrite in splitting the one activity from the other. For example, many people hate to carry heavy groceries to their car but they do want to carry heavy weights in the gym. While these activities are both essentially the same thing, with the same effect. Just like I developed this easy method of getting stronger which you can do while working, but hasn’t gained much popularity yet. One more point for the fact that place and time is very important for people’s behavior.
What is necessary to make people work healthy?
So physical activity is not associated with work. But as mentioned, we know that prolonged sitting causes several health-problems. Thus it is necessary to associate work with physical activity for the sake of the health of office workers. This means that physical needs to get closer to work, or work needs to get closer to physical activity. Workers should make associations between the, linking work and physical activity. There are several things we can do to connect physical activity with working.
Connect the workplace to physical activity
As we know by now, between work and physical activity there is a large gap. However, today there are many gadgets and furniture that are searching for the “thin lines” that can pull work and physical activity together. here, I mean objects that need to be useful during work, while having a (small) positive effect on our health. The effects seem to be a trade-off, where to much physically engaging activity reduces the usefulness for work, and the other way around. For example, you have the office-desk with a treadmill beneath it, which is often to physically engaging. You can’t think/type well while running. Sit-standing desks are more fitting and just require you to stand. while working. Not too much physically engaging, and not too much distracting from work-activities. Some studies even suggest that standing is beneficial for working creativity!
Connect the minds of workers to physical activity
You can have many healthy furniture in your office, but if the minds of the workers do not connect work with physical activity, they won’t use them. I heard people say; “I came to work, not to exercise”. But you can overcome this. One thing often used, is a trick from marketing called “Nudging“. Nudging is a “gentle (implicit) push towards the right direction”. So a subtle reminder, poster, or placement of objects that makes you change your behavior almost unconsciously. Like having a poster of exercising people inside the office or posters of a library inside a silence-working room. But you can also have posters showing the risks of endured sitting. It does nothing directly, but it makes you connect the work with physical activity subtly. Nudges are very subtle. But longer information sessions or workshops can have of course similar or better effects. Changing the minds of workers can lead (slowly) towards self-initiated behavior change.
Approach health integral
As mentioned earlier, people are used to keep physical activity for their exercise court. But there are studies suggesting that only exercising in the evening does not compensate for the 8 hours of sitting during the day. If you approach health integral, and convince workers that working on health does not only means exercising. But that health is something of 24/7 hours a day including working, health and thus physical activity becomes associated with work too. Healthy living becomes an integral thing and has no boundaries between activities.
Change the meaning of health
We shouldn’t forget that health is also a concept in the mind and can have many meanings. Read also my blog about the benefits and paradoxes of (measuring) health integrally. For some people, health is just about not being ill. While for others health is living engaged, pro-actively, and happy. This is a huge difference. When doing health-education this is something to give attention to, and might be quite important for the adoption of health interventions.
From the body to the mind
One can perceive himself to be quite healthy, but the state of a body might say something different. But if there is no awareness of the state of the body, the perception does not change. Awareness of health (behavior) through understanding the state of the body can have many effects. An “office health check” can confront people with their physical state, while an activity tracker can confront and stimulate health behavior. Awareness about health can give health a more prominent place in life and engage their mind into healthier living.
The approaches to make workers engaged into health behavior at work, are going both ways. The workplace can be more connected to physical activity. While on the other side, the mind of office workers can be more connected to physical activity. Connecting physical activity and behavior in the minds of workers will make them more likely to use the furniture that connects physical activity and behavior. Lastly, changing personal definitions of health, and tools like health checks and wearable’s can change minds in general towards a “better” understanding of health. This new mindset might be sufficient to change peoples’ intrinsic behavior towards healthier living. There are of course several costs related to make workers work and life healthier. But if you account for the potential benefits of healthy workers; less sickdays, more productivity, focus, work engagement, company engagement, you might consider it.