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Interventions for vitality in the workplace

Download PDF Modern technology lends itself to us spending a large part of the day sitting down. We have cars, laptops, home delivery services, Netflix and a host of other influencers that require little physical activity.

Medical and psychological researchers question whether so much sitting is good for the body with numerous studies into the physiological and cognitive effects of sedentary lifestyles being regularly carried out. Sedentary behaviour includes activities that require little energy while sitting or lying, but not sleeping.

What's evident? Physical activity is necessary for a healthy body and mind. The health risks associated with sitting for hours at a time every day vary from back and neck complaints to cancer, cardiovascular symptoms and metabolic disorders. A sedentary lifestyle also increases the risk of depression (Owen et al. 2012).

How do we get computer workers to spend less time sitting and more time being active during the day? Vitality programs that aim to encourage employees to be active can offer a solution.

There is now great demand on the national and international market for such vitality programs; running and bootcamp sessions during working hours, the use of "activity trackers" and physiological scans with relevant advice. There are plenty of options yet the guaranteed outcome of these vitality programmes is virtually always the same. Providers guarantee physically fitter employees, reduced stress and increased productivity. Often the effectiveness of these interventions has not been evaluated, let alone the long-term effects.
So how do you sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the implementation of vitality interventions? What kind of intervention is the most effective in positively influencing physical and psychological outcomes amongst employees? In short what is your best bet when HR decides to make such an investment?

The long-term effects of Vitality Interventions

Two very different workplace vitality interventions were compared in Texas recently (Taylor et al., 2016). A Booster Break fitness activity programme versus a Computer Prompts software activity programme. Both interventions ran for six months. Employees who qualified for evaluation had to spend at least five hours each day sitting while working.

The Booster Break Programme

This programme provided a structured fitness program in the workplace. The program consisted of strength training, aerobic exercise and 60 seconds of meditation, all at the workplace during working hours. Sessions lasted 15 minutes daily and the exercises could be done in standard office wear.

The Computer Prompts Programme

This program consisted of a software that encouraged employees to get up and take a walk based on their individual work patterns. Time spent sitting was interrupted with prompts to encourage three-minute breaks at five one-hour intervals throughout the day. If followed correctly, the breaks totalled the equivalent of the Booster Break Programme.

The Usual Break Routine

Participants in this group were asked to continue their usual "break" behaviour and received no further intervention. Normal breaks consisted of fetching coffee, chatting to colleagues, etc. 

Physiological and behavioural effects – Booster Break Programme vs. Computer Prompts Programme

The comparison of these interventions included looking at additional contributing factors; quality of life scores (social support at work, perceived stress and physical and mental health), lifestyle (BMI, waist/abdominal circumference, weight, number of steps taken per day and per week), sitting habits (computer use in minutes, television habits, sitting habits throughout the week, sitting habits over the weekend) and cardio-metabolic indicators (cholesterol, triglyceride levels in the blood, glucose levels and blood pressure).

In presenting their results, Taylor et al. (2016) decided to report on both inconsistent and consistent participation in the Booster Break Programme. They defined consistent participation as attending 80% of the programme.

Consistent attendees

Predictably, consistent Booster Break participants had higher weekly pedometer scores. And whereas BMI increased amongst the control participants, who continued their usual break routine, in the Computer Prompts and Booster Break groups BMI went down over time. Weekly sitting increased in all groups during this six-month period but more so in the Usual Break group. Significant decreases in weekend sitting were recorded amongst both the Computer Prompts and Booster Break intervention groups.

Inconsistent attendees

Not taking into account the 80% participation limit in the Booster Break intervention some positive effects were lost in this group of participants. This included the positive behavior change in weekend sitting habits compared with the computer prompted group.


Results show that both computer prompts and structured exercise interventions can be beneficial to health and that each intervention offers its own set of positive outcomes.
If you as an employer wish to give your employees ownership of their health then the software programme may be more effective. The spill-over into positive weekend behaviour in terms of health proved more stable for those who were given computer prompts. The Booster Break Programme activated more of a social response but without the group dynamic there is an increased chance that the healthy behaviour will also disappear. The effects of computer prompts could be greater if the prompt is offered in real time and applies, person-specific information about current sitting/standing habits.

In our existing Work and Move Suite, we use computer prompts with the aim of getting employees to be more active and to sit less.

Myrthe van Stralen
Senior Consultant | Research and Development
Office Athletes KnowHow
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