America’s battle of the bulge shows no signs of ending, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that 42.4 percent of American adults are obese. The recommendation that employees find ways to exercise at work — for example, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, doing some Yoga poses during a break — likely aren’t going to hurt anybody, but for the most part, it’s not going to help you lose any unwanted weight.
Working Out During Breaks
Following the minimum standards set by state and federal regulations, most rest breaks provided in the workplace are short, typically 20 minutes or less. Meal breaks are usually 30 minutes. These periods are the times when employees supposedly would hit the company gym or dip into an empty conference room for some pushups. The trouble is, there’s a potentially unhealthy opportunity cost to doing so: If a person uses the time available for exercise, they aren’t necessarily going to have time to eat a meal or enjoy a sensible snack, as many jobs aren’t conducive to consuming foods or drinks outside of designated rest and meal periods. The inability to eat during a shift can mean that the individual ends up feeling starved by the time they clock out and subsequently grabs something unhealthy (i.e., highly processed) with much higher fat, sugar, preservative, and overall calorie content, undoing all the work they just did.
Available work breaks are also problematic in that the time that seems available isn’t truly there when logistics come into play. For example, if an individual only has a 15-minute break, some of that time might be spent in the restroom or placing a non-business call. If a worker actually spends a meal break eating as they should and uses just half their break time for these other activities, they’ll only have a maximum of 15 minutes to get moving. 15 minutes of exercise is absolutely better than nothing, but a typical 160-lbs person burns about 215-300 calories at max in that amount of time, assuming they perform an activity that is more rigorous, such as jumping rope or running. Most workers likely won’t select a rigorous form of exercise because they would compromise their professional dress and don’t want to spend the rest of their shift smelling like sweat. Even if they do work hard, a single ounce of nuts can erase their efforts.
Working Out Outside of Breaks
In some jobs, there might be instances where an employee has some downtime, such as if a tech support worker has a lull in calls, chat, or email requests. Once again, workers in this situation likely aren’t going to bust out into a high-intensity Tabata session, not only because of the desire to maintain hygiene but also because they can’t necessarily predict when they’ll have to start working again. Bodyweight exercises can be challenging, particularly if a person selects harder variations. These aside, workers are limited by the equipment they can have within reach. With the exceptions of a jump rope and resistance tubes/bands, most equipment won’t store compactly and elevate the heart rate as required for good calorie burning. Regardless of whether a worker opts for bodyweight or ropes/bands/tubing, without the ability to change into workout clothes, attire can limit the exercises a worker selects, either because of modesty concerns or because the professional clothing somehow impedes proper form (e.g., trying to squat in a pencil skirt).
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Another Factor: Stress
About 4 out of every 5 workers report that they feel stress on the job, according to the American Institute of Stress. That’s significant because research has demonstrated a link between stress and obesity — too much activation of the body’s fight-or-flight mechanisms can throw off a host of processes, including those related to metabolism. Exercise can be an excellent way to keep stress in check, releasing endorphins and helping individuals burn through the extra adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemicals that otherwise would cause problems. If an individual cannot exercise during moments of anxiety, however, then they might turn to other coping mechanisms, such as eating comfort foods.
So What Should Workers and Businesses Do?
Workers rightfully should pursue an active lifestyle, but the harsh reality is that work time is work time. If individuals are so pressed for time that they are trying to squeeze fitness into the normal workday, they likely would do well to reexamine their current schedule and lifestyle. They also need to recognize that, despite the corporate acceptance for multitasking, inattentiveness during exercise can reduce results and compromise safety.
Businesses should not ignore the fact that active workers can enjoy longer, more productive lives. Instead of encouraging employees to squeeze fitness in, companies should make more of an effort to support physical activity outside of regular work hours, such as keeping the company gym open 24/7 or exploring more flexible schedules that allow workers to take full-length fitness classes during the day. Health insurance discounts for reaching specific activity goals and supporting the formation of voluntary sports teams among workers (e.g., a basketball league or running group) are additional ways to get staff moving on a regular basis. This way, employees can feel supported to spend the time they need on their health without compromising anything else along the way.