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Institute for Sports Research

The Importance of Physical Preparedness in the Workplace

By Camacho, T.C., Steenkamp, D., Steenkamp, T., Nel, J., Du Toit, F.C. & Malan, G

Posted on 09 October 2009

Employees are the most important asset in the work place. It is vital therefore, that employees work in an optimal environment and that they are always at their best. This can be achieved by ensuring that the employees are physically prepared to perform their work (e.g. executives need to be able to cope with high levels of stress, factory workers need to be strong and agile to prevent injuries). Employees should therefore, be encouraged to embrace physical activity as a lifestyle choice.


Physical activity is associated with many psychological, emotional, social and physical benefits. The work place can be a stressful environment and employees with high levels of emotional stress are generally at greater risk of colds, flu and other illnesses. Regular exercise is a great way of relieving this occupational stress because exercise results in an increased production and release of serotonin into the bloodstream which is responsible for the “good mood” feeling experienced after exercise. 

Exercise is also associated with an increase in cardiorespiartory fitness which decreases an individual’s risk of coronary artery disease (CAD) as well as facilitating the body to physiologically deal with risks associated with CAD more effectively. These risks include high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity, etc.

Other associated benefits of regular exercise are improvements in muscular strength and endurance, joint flexibility, reductions in body weight and improvements in self-esteem and confidence.

Thus a fit employee tends to have lower overall stress levels, is less likely to get sick, is stronger and more agile as well as more self confident than an employee who does not engage in regular exercise. Furthermore, this will reduce absenteeism and health care expenditures, prevent on site injuries and increase employee productivity and morale. 


There is strong evidence that physical activity is effective in reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression. Despite this evidence, a majority of adults do not meet the minimal requirements for physical activity wherein health benefits are thought to occur (Cameron et al., 2007). According to U.S statistics only 26 % of U.S. adults engage in vigorous leisure-time physical activity three or more times per week (defined as periods of vigorous physical activity lasting 10 minutes or more) and about 59% of adults do no vigorous physical activity in their leisure time (Lethbridge-Çejku et. al, 2003). Interestingly, studies conducted on representative samples of South Africans who are undergoing the transition from rural to urban communities, found that in the Western Cape province 30-40% of men and women reported being inactive or minimally active in their work or leisure time and that groups at greatest risk for low levels of physical activity in urban and peri-urban communities included young women who left school (15-24 years) and older men and women over the age of 55 years. Furthermore in a sample from the peri-urban community of the Western Cape, lack of physical activity was a significant risk factor for non-insulin-dependant diabetes (Bourne, et. al. 2002). In a survey conducted in the Northwest Province of South Africa physical inactivity, independent of the degree of urbanization, demonstrated an association with increasing levels of obesity (Bourne, et. al. 2002).

Slentz, et al. (2007) reviewed the research on the long – and intermediate term cost of physical inactivity on an individual’s health. In terms of the long term cost, they mentioned that physical inactivity increased premature mortality. For decades, low levels of fitness and low levels of physical activity and sedentary living have been known to be associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all-cause mortalities. A landmark study (1989) on 10,224 men and 3120 women, who were followed on an average of 8 years, supported this conclusion. The study showed that the risk of premature mortality from all causes decreases further as fitness increases, and that a modest increase in physical activity might be especially beneficial in the most sedentary individuals.

It was further demonstrated that modest lifestyle changes (including moderate nutritional changes and modest increases in physical activity that lead to small amounts of weight loss) can prevent much (and perhaps almost all) of the progression from impaired glucose intolerance to diabetes. In the Diabetes Prevention Program, the results showed that lifestyle modification reduced the incidence of diabetes by 58% (Slentz, et al 2007). 

Laaksonen et al. (2005) also found that individuals who increased their total leisure time physical activity alone were 74% less likely to develop diabetes during the trial period

These studies clearly emphasize the high cost of physical inactivity and the benefits of modest lifestyle changes.

Average physical activity levels continue to decline as we permit technological progress to engineer the need for movement out of our environment (Slentz, et al 2007). This has allowed for more and more jobs to become sedentary in nature and thus indirectly promoting a sedentary lifestyle. While looking at the reasons why individuals lead primarily sedentary lives, Biddle and Mutrie, (2001) hypothesised that part of the low level of physical activity in North America is related to the increased opportunities to be sedentary, including an increase in sedentary occupations. Sedentary lifestyles have not only been linked with increased risk of coronary heart disease but they go hand in hand with an increase in worker’s compensation claims and increased absenteeism. For example, Musich et al. (2001) found that physical inactivity, smoking, and life dissatisfaction were controllable health risks that were highly related to workers’ compensation costs. Other researchers found that being overweight or obese and having high stress had the highest correlation with worker absenteeism and that initiating a wellness programme decreased absenteeism (Wright et al., 2002).

A study by Gilson, et al. (2009) demonstrated that the implementation of either a sustained walking route of at least 10 minutes per workday, or the promotion of walking in workday tasks resulted in a reduction of sitting time and an increase in walking time, in white collar university employees.

Furthermore, Brand, et al (2006) demonstrated  - in a study on 110 employees, of which 52  participated in a physical exercise intervention program, at leisure time, in off-worksite training facilities – that engaging in regular physical activity increases the employees perception of quality of life and increases  psychological and physical health sub-domains.

Both Sallis et al, (1998) and Huston et al, (2003) identified that the barriers to participation in leisure-time physical activity is a lack of time and access to places or facilities for physical activity. Lucove, et. al (2007) found that associations between perceived worksite policies and environments and physical activity were strongest for having paid time for non–work-related physical activity, an on-site fitness facility at work, and subsidies for health clubs. These may possibly be solutions to overcome the identified barriers.

Statistics have demonstrated that in the U.S. the cost of physical inactivity may be as high as $24.3 billion (Colditz et. al. 1999).

Therefore it may be concluded that the research supports the benefits of exercise on an individual’s health and a sedentary lifestyle may negatively impact the employee and the employer, highlighting the importance of physical preparedness in the workplace. The research has also shown the success of encouraging physical activity in the workplace.


As previously mentioned a fitter employee is a more productive and effective worker. However, the majority of their time is spent at work. This makes it difficult for them to engage in physical activity after hours. The workplace could therefore, be an excellent venue for promoting physical activity and healthful habits.

There are many options for implementing fitness programs and increasing employee’s physical activity levels in the workplace. Examples of such options are subsidizing gym memberships, setting up walking programs or group exercise classes during lunch hours, providing employees with incentives when they exercise, providing them with “Behind the desk” office exercises, allowing for flexible working hours and providing them with handouts that will educate them about the options available to them and the importance of physical activity to their health. Exercise performed in a group is not only healthy but is therapeutic and promotes team-building too.

Due to the sedentary nature of most jobs, employees should not only be encouraged to engage in a regular exercise regime but they should also be encouraged to make small changes in their daily activity by parking their car further away from the office, getting off the bus a few stops early or walking to work and taking the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (2006) an accumulation of 30 minutes or more of moderate intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week is recommended for improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness, body composition and muscular fitness.

To ensure safety, employees should undergo a medical screening and physical examination, by a qualified health professional, before commencing with an exercise regime. This is especially important for those with medical conditions, such as a heart condition or an orthopaedic condition and for those who have any associated risk factors with CAD.

Sitting still at a desk for long periods of time or repeating the same tasks over and over, can take a toll on the muscles and make a person lethargic. Below is a “Behind the desk” Office Exercise regime that employees can safely implement while sitting at their desk. These exercises will help with blood circulation, strengthen muscles, loosen stiff joints and re-energize the employee.


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