How can employers help staff improve their metabolic age?

Need to know:

  • Metabolic age is a holistic way of quantifying health, taking into account physical as well as mental wellbeing.
  • Having an empirical measurement can help frame and communicate a holistic wellbeing strategy.
  • Education and communication should centre on a fun, healthy approach, and team activities should not focus too much on competition, instead creating engagement and motivation.

Metabolic age is a measurement of a person’s basal metabolic rate (BMR), or the rate at which they burn calories at rest, compared with that of others in theirs and other age groups. Ideally, an adult should look to have a metabolic age at or lower than their actual age, to indicate a high-performing, healthy body.

This measurement takes into account a wide range of factors, including body composition, fat and muscle proportions, going beyond just weight or body mass index (BMI) metrics, making it a more accurate depiction of overall health that takes into account diverse body types, where others might only show part of the picture.

Employers are increasingly finding this to be an effective marker around which to build wellbeing strategies, in part due to its wide-reaching nature.

Rut Stefansdottir, HR manager at accountancy firm Charterhouse, says: “We were looking into our productivity, sickness absence and mental wellbeing. We decided to [look at metabolic age] in order to increase happiness, all-round wellbeing and, therefore, productivity.”

Effective activities

According to Angela Steel, founder of SuperWellness, there is a laundry list of potential places to start: resistance training and high-intensity exercise; building muscle, which increases metabolism; improving diet and lifestyle; and creating good sleep patterns, to name a few.

Employers should also be aware of the factors beyond just physical fitness; stress and mental wellbeing, for example. Any programme aimed at helping staff reduce their metabolic age should, therefore, look to include aspects such as massage and meditation, or education around sleep.

Precisely because there is such a wide range of relevant activities, it can be difficult to know where to start. Employers might start with some basics, like a running club, but it is also important to have a consultancy period which includes discussions with employees themselves about what would appeal, says Kira Mahal, personal trainer and chief executive officer at Reset LDN.

Employers can approach staff metabolic age with any degree of involvement they see fit, from hands-off education and signposting, through to a full-blown wellbeing and exercise programme.

However, it is important to provide activities as well as education, says Steel: “Because people are already there and in teams, it works really well in a work context, and [employers] can create a buzz. People who wouldn’t necessarily want to do it can then change their minds and become interested. It can [just] be used as a signposting tool, but it would be a missed opportunity.”

Understanding and engaging

Metabolic age measurements are a good metric with which to tie together a holistic wellbeing strategy. This framing approach can therefore engage and spark interest with staff, at the same time as giving them a method of tracking their progress.

It can help to explain that these activities have longer-lasting effects, both on metabolic age and on other elements, such as mental wellbeing and productivity.

“Changing people’s mindsets so that they understand that will not only get them to work that much harder in a session, but actually help them reap the rewards of what exercise should be,” says Mahal.

Having a shared journey and framework can also boost motivation, where simply providing gym benefits, for example, might only catch the interest of those already on the journey to improved health and wellbeing.

Communicating the science

As this is not a metric that is necessarily widely understood, it is important to provide staff with education around the science. This can include communications from nutritionists, fitness experts and mental health professionals.

For Mahal, it is about more than just providing information. Communications must empower staff to take part, with links to specific programmes, making sure that they are aware that this is being actively encouraged by their organisation.

“It’s one thing saying ‘you can definitely improve your metabolic age by doing more’, really employers have to empower [staff],” she explains. “It’s going that bit further to say ‘at 12, on-site, there is a yoga class, you all have permission to go and do that, we want you to’.”

Education and communication around the concept of metabolic age should not only explain the science, but provide a holistic picture, giving access to advice around all elements and using a variety of learning styles to help as many employees as possible.

“People have different learning styles, some respond well to coaching or talks where they get the black and white information,” says Steel. “For some people, just having the number will be really powerful, others will be inspired by recipes or meal planning. The more the employer provides a full package, the better.”

Healthy competition

While having team activities and shared metrics can be a good engagement tool, there are some potential pitfalls to consider.

“It’s important not to focus everything on the numbers,” says Steel. “The advice needs to be really sound, all-round health advice. It’s important that it’s done in a way that puts it into context; it’s not about being perfect all the time, just do your best. It’s a motivational tool, not the be all and end all.”

To this end, using friendly competitions such as voting on the best healthy recipes can move away from focusing on just the numbers, while still drawing people in with a social element. Meanwhile, communications should focus on setting realistic, healthy goals, rather than focusing just on comparison with fellow employees.

The current climate

Ideally, communications, coaching and activities surrounding metabolic age should be done on-site and face-to-face. In the current climate, however, with most employees working from home due to the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak, this is no longer possible. It should also be noted that actual measurements of metabolic age must be done in person, so have to be put on hold at the moment.

However, this is still an important time, perhaps more than ever, to focus on staff wellbeing, both physical and mental.

“This is a dangerous period we’re in where people could really neglect the very basics of what actually going to work forces you to do, [such as] sitting at a desk with good ergonomics, sitting upright, going to meetings. It forces you to move,” says Mahal.

However, this is also a good moment to engage those staff who might have struggled to find the time otherwise; lunchtime workouts via video conferencing might feel more feasible, compared to taking time out of the office to go to the gym.

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“[Some] people will not be handling this well, and you have to give them the tools to be able to handle it,” says Mahal. “Things like a lunchtime workout helps schedule their day, get some routine going. It creates some routine and structure, which is desperate right now.”

Sleep, already an important factor, is only going to become more of a problem area as people’s circadian rhythms are negatively affected by isolation and home working. Employers should up their efforts in communicating the importance of routine, exercise, good sleep hygiene, and activities that boost mental wellbeing during this time.