Fitness program hopes to end sedentary behaviour

B.C. launch of UPnGO targeting 5,000 employees precedes potential rollout nationwide in 2017

A new pilot program has launched in British Columbia to counterbalance sedentary behaviour and associated health risks in the workplace — and the platform could soon roll out across the whole of Canada.

The UPnGO program, developed by ParticipACTION, launched last month at five major companies in B.C. and involves step goals for employees. The $7.5-million project is funded in part by the Public Health Agency of Canada and B.C.’s Provincial Health Services Authority. 

“(It’s) a workplace wellness program that was designed to get Canadian employees to sit less and move more,” said Lisa Fender, program director at UPnGO with ParticipACTION in Toronto.  

“We know that Canadians aren’t getting enough physical activity in their day, period. Twenty per cent of Canadians get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous, heart-pumping physical activity during the week — which is really, if you think about it, just 30 minutes a day for five days. So not even every day.

“Only 20 per cent of us are doing that. And one of the strategies to counteract that is looking at the workplace. We all sit in front of screens for hours and hours on end, and humans are built to move.”

About 48 per cent of British Columbians worry they spend too much time sitting at work, according to a ParticipACTION survey of 760 Canadian workers. The idea behind UPnGO is to find little ways of incorporating more movement into the workday, said Fender. 

“When people register for the program, we ask them a number of questions in the registration process. And through that process, we find out where they’re at in their current physical activity and sedentary behaviours. And we actually give them a personalized step goal based on that registration process.”

In Canada, the recommended step goal is 10,000 per day.

“But if you’re barely moving throughout the day and only getting about 2,000 steps, then asking you to get 10,000 is like telling you to fly to the moon,” said Fender. “You just can’t do it… it’s too much to ask. So we give personalized step goals based on where people are at, so that they have a target that is reachable and attainable, and then they get success from there.” 

“And the idea... is to slowly move closer to that 10,000 steps per day over a period of time.” 

The ultimate goal is to roll the program out across Canada — in the fall of 2016, the goal is to expand the number of pilot programs in B.C. and then to Ontario as well. In 2017, the hope is to expand the program across Canada, said Fender. 

Targeted groups
Through the pilot program, ParticipACTION has spoken with different organizations and talked to them about targeting a small group of people, said Fender. 

“We want to take our program and we want to test it, find out what we’re doing right, find out what we’re doing wrong and then evolve the program from there.” 

As an average, ParticipACTION has targeted about 1,000 people at each organization, so about 5,000 total. 

“Of course, these programs are voluntary — it’s not an employer opening the program to all employees, it’s not mandatory,” she said. 

ParticipACTION is piloting the program with the B.C.-based locations of Telus, the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver and Okanagan campuses,, Providence Healthcare and the City of Richmond, said Fender. 

“With all of them, we’ve worked out a specific target group to reach out to, and then moving through the pilot, we’re going to see how many people register and what the engagement rate is and what the attrition rate is,” said Fender. 

“We know through other workplace wellness programs that organizations have a difficult time engaging their employees, and I think the rate is somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of employee engagement. So we want to improve on that, and we also specifically with this program want to target people who are less physically active and also sedentary.”

They don’t want to preach to the converted, she said. 

“We’re not talking to people who are already doing all the good habits. We want to make sure that we have a program that reaches and connects with people who are physically inactive and sedentary at work,” said Fender. 

Small changes, big impact
So what are some of the ways employees should be encouraged to incorporate more movement into their workday? 

Even something as simple as standing — not necessarily exercising or moving around — can make a real, positive difference to employee health, said Gavin Bradley, founding director of Acting Working in London.  

“This is a problem. This is just like smoking, just like nutrition — there are huge implications of prolonged sedentary behaviour in the office environment,” he said. 

 “Once we’ve understood the problem, then we can start to tackle the solution. But, unfortunately, to a large degree up until now, (the employer’s) attitude has been ‘Well, it’s not my problem.’”

Before, the focus had been fairly limited to looking at levels of physical activity, not sedentary behaviour, he said. 

“Irrespective of physical activity, time spent sedentary needs to be understood and assessed and managed and broken up,” said Bradley. 

The number one solution is education amongst employees, facilitators in the company and, obviously, education amongst employers. 

“Maybe sitting is no longer acceptable in our office space, just like smoking was no longer acceptable 20 years ago,” said Bradley.  

“As our understanding of it grows, we need to obviously look at equipment. Equipment is important, but it’s only important if it’s the right equipment for the right people and there is training around that.

“It’s not about sitting, it’s not about standing, it’s about mixing it up.”

Attitude adjustment 
And there are still some employers that may need to adjust perceptions around what “working” looks like, said Travis Saunders, assistant professor of applied human sciences at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

“Some workplaces really promote the idea that if you’re away from your desk, you’re not working; or that if you’re standing, you’re not working. The idea is that you should be working 100 per cent of the time, and if you are working you are sitting at your desk,” he said.

 “Promoting a culture that understands that it’s OK to take a walking meeting, that can be a productive way to have a meeting; that it can be OK to take a break every hour, a short walk break; that those things won’t have a large impact on productivity, but they do have a measurable health impact.

“We know from looking at studies that people who use a sit/stand desk tend to sit for about two hours less a day as opposed to a regular sitting desk — which is pretty substantial.”

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