5 tips to get staff active: the mental benefits of physical activity

Young man in wheelchair and sporty woman training outdoors

As many as 60% of UK adults admit that anxiety impacts their daily lives, according to UK charity Mental Health Foundation, and one in 10 in the workplace are suffering from anxiety or depression, the most recent Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey revealed.

The good news, however, is that data from health and life insurance provider Virtality helps prove how much physical activity and mental wellbeing are intrinsically linked.

According to findings from those who engage with the Vitality Programme (which rewards you for being healthy), members who exercise at least three days every week were found to have a 33% lower risk of anxiety and depression compared with less active members[1].

Simultaneously, members who are active are more likely to improve their mental wellbeing over time.

With the benefits of physical activity so well documented, exercise is now being prescribed by GPs for people who suffer from mild to moderate symptoms of mental ill-health.

Meanwhile, a recent study found that group running two to three times a week delivers the same mental health boost as a course of antidepressants[2].

However, research conducted by ukactive found that 75% of Brits underestimate the 150 minutes of moderate to intensive exercise recommended by the NHS. Instead, around 40% thought 90 minutes of activity would be enough.

So, with the warmer weather here and a more natural inclination to enjoy the outdoors, here are five simple tips to getting staff more active.

5 simple tips to get staff active

  1. Every little helps

Given the sedentary nature of many workplaces and the fact many staff are now WFH (permanently or on a more flexible basis), making physical activity achievable can be a gamechanger. There’s no need to dedicate hours at a time to exercise. Instead, short, ‘snackable’ bursts – whether that’s a 15-minute HIIT workout first thing or a short jog or walk during the lunch break – can do wonders for our health.

  • Build in activity

Given our busy lifestyles, it’s also helpful if physical activity fits into our daily routine. This can mean offering staff tips to build less structured activity into their week. For example, is there a section of the work commute that could be more active? This might entail getting off the bus one stop early or walking to the train station rather than driving. Even walking the stairs rather than taking the lift at the office can make a big difference. For those working at home, offering access to a remote workout or online yoga class could be just the ticket.

  • Everyone is different

What works for one staff member might not work for another. Vitality’s Head of Exercise and Physical Activity Jonny Kibble’s advice is: “Just do something you enjoy”. This could be something as simple as buying a skipping rope or throwing a frisbee in a near-by park. “Gyms are also a great place to find new activities to try where there are experts on hand to help you,” he adds. This is why offering a diverse range of benefits – from gym discounts to step challenges to mindfulness rewards – stand more chance of having mass appeal across the workforce.

  • Small nudges and incentives

As human beings, finding motivation and making healthy choices is not always easy. This applies to employees too. However, according to behavioural economics, small nudges and incentives are often what’s need to hack our innate tendency towards instant gratification. For example, rewarding employees for doing just 10,000 steps three times a week with a handcrafted coffee from Caffe Nero is proven to be effective at increasing physical activity levels for those who engage with the Vitality Programme[3].

  • Form a run (or walk) club

With many workplaces now enjoying more social interaction, getting together in a group to run in our lunch breaks – or even stroll around the block or park – can help boost office morale and help us all be held accountable. As long as the weather ok, you’ll find the outcome is usually positive, offering staff a chance to mingle and make friends too.

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Beyond physical activity

Because every individual is different, there’s no silver bullet to remedy mental health challenges, and there are often a multitude of factors to recognise in order to combat feelings of anxiety and depression.

However, studies have shown that mindfulness can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety – and Vitality members are proving the theory.

Just under a third (27%) of Vitality members who use the Headspace app were found to have greater improvement in their mental wellbeing over time, compared with those who did not use the platform[4].

Plus, for those mental health challenges that cannot be prevented, ensuring staff have access to the right treatment, such as talking therapies offering cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling, can mean employees feel supported, while also helping to reduce absenteeism and presenteeism in the workplace.

[1] Vitality research into Vitality Programme data 2023

[2] Group running as effective as antidepressants in boosting mental health (thetimes.co.uk)

[3] Vitality member data analysis 2023

[4] Vitality research into Vitality Programme data 2023


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