Engaging in light physical activity at work leads employees to skip activity at home

New research from the University of Georgia College of Public Health is investigating the link between the amount of physical activity we get on the job and our overall health.

In a study funded by the American Heart Association, researchers examined how a range of factors, such as job type and weight, might impact physical activity both at and outside of work. This first of several analyses describes whether adults who experience more physical activity at work compensate by engaging in less activity outside of work.

Little is understood about how occupational physical activity, as it is known in research literature, is related to overall health because until now researchers have been focused on the activity we do during our free time, like running or playing sports.

“That’s important because leisure activities are where a lot of adults get health-enhancing physical activity, but it’s not where adults get the most volume of physical activity,” said Dr. Jennifer Gay, an associate professor of health promotion and behavior at UGA’s College of Public Health and lead author on the study.

In fact, many adults get the largest chunk of their daily activity at work, which may be problematic as the amount of activity we do at work is declining.

“More and more people are sitting at work,” said Gay. “And as we become sedentary at work, people are not necessarily being more active in their free time.”

Dr. Gay and her team monitored the physical activity of over 435 full-time employees working in a variety of jobs over a two-week period. The participants wore accelerometers that tracked their steps and total minutes of exercise, and the data were categorized into low-intensity activity, like standing or walking, or moderate-to-vigorous activity, such as jogging or climbing stairs.

To the team’s surprise, the data showed that participants performing more moderate to vigorous intensity activity at work tended to keep up the same level of activity outside of work. Participants who engaged in low-intensity activity, however, did not compensate by doing more activity outside of work, and this association held for office workers and laborers alike.

This finding is particularly relevant, says Dr. Gay, because most of our current worksite wellness interventions focus on increasing light-intensity activity. She points to the introduction of standing desks as one example.

“[This study] seems to suggest that if we introduce standing desks, then we might be reducing leisure time activity. By trying to do good, we might be lowering people’s total physical activity in the long run,” she said. “It tells me that we might start looking at less traditional types of worksite wellness programming.”

Encouraging more intensive activity at work like taking the stairs more often or brisk walking during breaks at work may provide a better benefit to the overall health of workers, says Dr. Gay.

“If you’re wanting to do interventions in the worksite, that’s something to consider. You don’t want to have an overall decrease in activity for the sake of increasing worksite activity,” said Dr. Gay.

The paper, “An examination of compensation effects in accelerometer-measured occupational and non-occupational physical activity,” was published in Preventive Medicine Reports. It is available as a PDF.

Co-authors on the study include Dr. David M. Buchner with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Jessalyn Smith at Data Recognition Corporation and Dr. Chunla He with the University of Georgia.

– Lauren Baggett

Posted September 15, 2017.

Additional coverage in the ASPPH Sept. 15 Friday Letter: https://www.aspph.org/georgia-engaging-in-light-physical-activity-at-work-leads-employees-to-skip-activity-at-home-georgia-study-finds/