I’ve written many posts in recent months presenting the benefits of exercise (even very small amounts of exercise). My focus in these articles has been on traditional forms of exercise, such as running, cycling, and aerobics classes, done during leisure time. But what if we could improve our health while we work? Two studies were recently published in the September 2011 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that demonstrated how workplace wellness initiatives could improve health and increase productivity.

Researchers at Brigham Young University, led by Ray M. Merrill, PhD, MPH et al., studied the effects of starting a wellness program at a company with 472 employees. The employees completed personal health assessments, and they were given weekly tasks focusing on one of six behavior changes. The tasks focused on campaigns to change six behavioral principles – fast food and healthy eating, engaging in physical activity, improving sleep habits, decreasing caloric intake and increasing caloric expenditure, choosing healthier food options, and identifying and managing stress.

Tips to improve health at work

The authors found that 41% of the employees completed both the health assessment and the tasks assigned. Significantly more women completed the program than men. They hypothesized that men had more physically demanding jobs or that women responded to the social nature of the program. Regardless, of the employees that completed the program, self-rated health and life satisfaction improved significantly.

The second study tried an even more radical effort. Ulrica von Thiele Schwarz, PhD and Henna Hasson, PhD investigated whether starting health interventions during work hours could not only improve health but boost productivity. They created three groups of employees. One group worked 2.5 hours less each week and used that time to perform physical exercise. The second group worked 2.5 hours less but could do whatever they chose during that time. The third group served as a control, working the normal weekly hours.

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You might think that decreasing work hours would lead to a corresponding decrease in objective productivity, but that isn’t what these authors discovered. In the group who worked less but used that time for physical exercise at work, both subjective productivity (rated by the employees) and objective productivity (number of patients treated by the employees, in this case) increased for the exercise group. But it was clearly the results of the exercise, as the group who only worked less but didn’t exercise had no productivity increases, and the control group actually showed a decline in output. The physical exercise group also had decreased numbers of sick day absences.

I think these studies are very encouraging, and companies should look into whether programs like these can be implemented at their locations during work hours or after hours. Not only can exercise improve overall health, but it can also decrease the number of sick days the employees cannot work, thereby increasing potential output of the company and possibly profits. Plus it might decrease the cost of healthcare for the employees paid by the companies. The studies also suggest that improving the health of employees actually makes the workers more productive, even if they perform that exercise in a few hours they would normally work. So companies should consider adding yoga classes, aerobics classes, bringing in fitness instructors, and other ideas to create a healthier and more productive workplace.

So what are some strategies you as employees can do each day to improve your health?

-Take the stairs instead of the elevator.Walk to improve your health and wellness-Park in the back of the parking lot. Don’t circle the lot for minutes looking for a spot close to the front door. Park at the back of the lot and walk to the entrance. That extra 100 yards adds up if done every day. (And if you have to wear shoes with high heels, bring a pair of running shoes and switch once you’re inside.)

-Replace your office chair with a Swiss ball. It is not exercise, per se, but you can improve your core strength by using a Swiss ball as your office desk chair.

-Get some of the other employees together to do yoga or walk or other exercise either during breaks at work or after working hours. The social aspect of exercising together not only increases the chance that you will stick with it, but it will be more fun too.

I also asked people to give me suggestions through social media. Here are a few of the responses:

Steven Taylor (Facebook): I try and take a “mental health” break about once every two hours. I get up and walk outside for about 5 minutes. This helps me refocus!

Sarah Enzaldo (Facebook): Parking a greater distance away from office door, taking a short brisk walk during lunch instead of sitting on your bum for a whole hour! Heel lifts or mini squats while waiting for copies too.