Obesity and the sedentary workplace

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, 1 in 4 British adults is obese. In turn, the UK now has the highest level of obesity in western europe. With fears that at least half the population could be obese by 2050, we wanted to look at some of the issues that are contributing to the crisis.

We have had the pleasure of speaking to Associate Professor Dr Peter Watt from the University of Brighton, to find out more about the cause, effect, and what we can do as employers to help tackle the issue in the workplace.

What are the biggest contributing factors to the current obesity crisis?

Obesity is the result of a long-term imbalance between calories in and calories out, i.e. calories in from food are greater than those expended living and moving.  The best evidence we have is that over the past 50 years or so calorie intake has, on population average, actually gone down. Therefore the likely candidate has reduced energy expenditure.

Andrew Prentice and Susan Jebb published a paper in the British Medical Journal summarising this evidence in 1995 and suggested that sloth (inactivity) is the most important factor, not greed

The working population has become more sedentary in their work and lifestyle and the opportunities for expending calories, without thinking or trying, have disappeared. It is only a small yearly imbalance that can lead to an accumulated weight gain of many kilograms. A 5% difference between calories taken in over calories expended will lead to about  6kg stored, mostly as fat. That is nearly a stone (14lb) per year.

Confounding this has been an increase in energy-dense food consumption, often provided by fast food outlets. These foods contain more calories per gram than unprocessed fresh foods and so can be seen as a “stealth” intake of calories, making the balancing act ever more difficult.

Our modern society is becoming increasingly sedentary. Could even a small amount of movement such as using a standing desk at work actually make a difference? 

Most recommendations for activity cite 10000 steps per day as a good aim for minimum daily activity.  It is about 8 kilometres (nearly 5 miles) and seems a long way, but it can readily be achieved by many short walks, using stairs instead of lifts and escalators etc. Any small changes in activity will be good, sedentary behaviour is a major health risk factor itself. Such activity changes are unlikely to make a major impact on body weight in the short term but will improve health and reduce risks for heart disease and diabetes. It will remove some fat but will also increase muscle, so weight may not change much, however, lowering body fat content whilst increasing muscle is also a good thing to do. Even small amounts of exercise are good for you.

Is there anything that we could do as employers to help tackle the issue?

Make people aware that exercise alone or even with a reasonable diet (reducing calorie intake but maintaining a balance of healthy foodstuffs) may not lead to much weight change, certainly at the start. Do not become fixated with the bathroom scales, putting on weight took several years, to remove it may take a similar time.

See this as a long term goal and have activities and food quality as the major aims, not losing weight but becoming more active and eating more appropriately. There are ways that the workplace can be arranged to ensure some activity occurs, moving printers or shared facilities to a place where everyone needs to get up and walk, even a small distance helps.

How can we help people to change ingrained bad habits at work such as eating at the desk and taking the lift?

Changing habits can take some time and it is not as simple as stopping a bad habit, there is a need to take up a good habit and this too can take some time to become second nature. So discover how you change your behaviour best and use what is best for the way you work, e.g. buddy systems (share a goal with a friend or colleague), incentives etc.

If people were going to make just one change what would be the best thing they could do?

Discover how you can move about more. A single change should involve something the individual can cope with and act as a start to progress on to greater levels of activity. If totally sedentary fidget a bit more and move around more, perhaps standing and sitting down instead of sliding the chair around. Try standing to work at the desk for a while, but ensure you are not then bending awkwardly. Get off a couple of stops earlier, if taking a bus. Park further away from work if driving. Ride a bike instead of using a bus or car. Walk instead of using a bike, bus or car.  Get a backpack and carry 5% of your body weight as drink or papers, this will increase your energy expenditure as long as you are carrying the weight.

Dr Peter Watt is an Associate Professor from the University of Brighton school of sport and service management. Dr. Watt has a wealth of research publications regarding metabolic processes and the effects of nutrition.  

If you would like to know more about happier, healthier and more productive workspaces, please get in touch and ask us any questions below!

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