Using the working day to help get you fitter

06 February 2023

In many ways, work is good for us. It provides us with money to live on, obviously. It can give us a sense of identity, value and belonging. It can also offer friendships and community.

At the same time, however, being at work all day every day can have its downsides, especially when it comes to health, wellbeing and fitness.

Office-based work, for one, is becoming increasingly sedentary, contributing to the estimated nine-and-a-half hours a day we now spend sitting on our backsides. This is storing up all sorts of health issues, including musculoskeletal and cardiovascular problems, a higher risk of diabetes, some cancers, and more mental ill health.

Even in jobs that are not office based, it can be a struggle to stay as fit and healthy as we might like. Tasks and movements in a physical role can often be repetitive, only exercising some parts of the body but not others. Peripatetic, on-the-road jobs can end up meaning hours sat behind the wheel, interspersed with unhealthy motorway or service station snacks.

To help overcome these workplace challenges WPA have linked up with five-time Olympian Jo Pavey to promote a healthier 2023, whatever your job or role.

The key is that, while work can often seem like the problem when it comes to health and fitness, with a little creativity you can rethink your working day to, in fact, make it part of the answer to your 2023 'new you'. Here are four ways.

4 ways to use your working day to help you get fitter

1. Do all the obvious stuff

Let's get the self-evident workplace fitness hacks out of the way first making them, in effect, your workplace fitness 'base camp'.1.

Think about ways to make your commute more active - cycling, walking or running to work or getting off a stop earlier or parking further away. Use your lunch break to get active outside, maybe power-walking round the block or even going for a run.

Use the stairs rather than the lift. Take this to another level (literally) through 'stair reps' where you power up and down a few times.

Deliberately use a bathroom on a different floor. Build in the occasional walking circuit of your workplace (or home if hybrid working) or go the long way to the coffee machine or breakout area. Team up with colleagues or workplace fitness groups (physical or virtual) to stick with it.

Make meetings and calls less sedentary. Can you, for example, deliberately pace around or do circuits while on the phone? What about standing or even walking meetings?

2. Mind your gaps

One way to move beyond the obvious when it comes to health and fitness is to focus on how to maximise the 'gaps' in your day - gaps you may not even currently notice are there - and then repurpose them to make them more active.

So, what about those five minutes every morning when you press 'snooze'? Could you set the alarm five minutes - just five minutes - earlier but then use that extra time for some quick stretches, squats, lunges, even a few press-ups?

How about marching on the spot while brushing your teeth, or when making lunch? Or stretching your back out and then touching your toes a few times while waiting for the kettle to boil? Or building in some high-intensity activity while dinner is cooking, such as skipping, running on the spot, squat thrusts or 'burpees'?

Or how about resolving to make your time with the kids more active, so playtime where you actually kick-about, throw, catch, get down on your hands and knees, build up a sweat, rather than just watch while surreptitiously scrolling on your phone? Not only can that become an automatic aerobic workout they’ll probably love you to bits for it.

Similarly, yes, it's great to curl up with Netflix of an evening, but could you build in more 'active' watching? So the occasional squat, stretch or lunge on the floor or on a mat, perhaps during the ad breaks. Or arm, leg or shoulder raises or rotations? Or muscle flexes? Clearly, this is unlikely to be a high-intensity workout but it all helps.

The key here is to be looking at your day - really looking - and identifying those gaps, even just a few minutes here and there, you can rethink and reuse as part of toning, shaping and generally mobilising your body.

3. Think motivational music and mind games

The benefits of listening to music - or anything that is going to distract you from your huffing and puffing - while exercising are well-recognised, and in fact have been part of sports science since the turn of the twentieth century.

Music is a great way to divert your mind from pain and fatigue, elevate mood, increase endurance, and reduce perceived effort, often without realising it.

So, think about what music or other form of entertainment is going to help push you that little bit further. If you like to keep in time to a thumping beat, perhaps find a playlist that ups the tempo? Or if podcasts are more your thing, what about slightly longer ones?

Alongside this, try talking to yourself. No, it's not a sign of madness, in one academic study researchers found that the desire to stop working out is largely psychological. Therefore, by saying to yourself 'I can keep going for x more minutes', 'I will do three more reps', or whatever works for you, you may surprise yourself. You can then build on that enhanced performance.

4. Use all the space (including the car)

We mentioned the perils of peripatetic working earlier. One solution is in-car exercise. The first, and most important, point to emphasise is this is not exercise to do while actually driving.

Once you're pulled up, however, there are loads of exercises you can do within the confines of your car to strengthen and engage a range of different muscle groups.

These can include inner thigh, chest, shoulder, arm and leg exercises. They can be ones to do between clients or meetings, or even while sat waiting for your children to come out of school, ballet or football. There are a range of good examples to try here and here.

What you're doing is recognising that, even in the most limited of spaces, there are things you can do to mobilise, move and exercise your body more.

This holds true in your workspace, however space-limited it may be. 'Jumping Jacks', burpees, squats, and jogging on the spot, for example, can all work in even the most cramped of workspaces.

Equally, there are ways to make even sitting more 'active'. For example, investing in a gym ball chair, essentially a gym ball on legs, rather than a standard chair will automatically give your core, abdominal and back muscles a workout and improve your posture and balance.

There are many exercises you can do at your desk, including torso twists, leg stretches, shoulder shrugs, neck rotations and wrist curls or stretches. There are good further 'deskercise' options here.

Think, too, about how you're just standing. It may not, technically, be exercise but if you actively straighten your back, tighten your core and pay attention to your posture and breathing, this will all help to strengthen your muscles and joints, including potentially engaging quads, glutes, and biceps.

What these tips illustrate is that your working day, whether in a home or physical office, shop or factory floor, or out on the road can, with a bit of imagination and creativity, become much more than just work, work, work.

Work can in fact become part of the solution to a fitter 'new you'. Good luck!

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.