How can employers use physical activity in the workplace to tackle diabetes risk?

running diabetes risk

Need to know:

  • Inactivity can increase an employee’s chance of contracting diabetes, therefore physical activity initiatives in the workplace can help mitigate potential diabetes risk.
  • Incorporating physical activity into employees’ daily working environment can have an impact, for example swapping a traditional desk for a sit-stand desk or by taking the stairs rather than the lift.
  • Employers should consider complimenting any physical activity programmes they introduce with something nutrition-focused, to further influence potential diabetes risk.

According to the charity Diabetes UK, there are nearly 3.7 million people in the UK who have been diagnosed with diabetes, as at November 2017. Diabetes, which has symptoms including excessive thirst, tiredness and needing to use the bathroom, is linked to a hormone called insulin and can be influenced by being overweight or inactive, according to NHS information updated in August 2017.

As diabetes is, therefore, becoming a more common condition, should employers be more proactive around reducing potential diabetes risk for their employees?

Dr Daniel Bailey, senior lecturer in health, nutrition and exercise at the University of Bedfordshire, says: “Every employer has a responsibility to ensure that their employees’ health and wellbeing is maintained, and especially not made worse by what they’re asking their employees to do, such as asking them to sit down all day; that’s going to increase their diabetes risk if [it is not broken up] with small amounts of activity.”

Why focus on physical activity?

But, how can physical activity help reduce employees’ risk of diabetes? Bailey explains: “When we’re physically active, [our bodies use] up blood sugar or glucose within the blood as a form of energy, so the more we can use that up as energy, then the less circulating blood sugar there is going to be in the body.

“It’s important that we’re active throughout the day to try and reduce the amount that our blood sugar increases after we’ve eaten a meal, because that increase after we’ve eaten a meal, that’s probably what poses the greatest risk to overall diabetes risk.”

Another advantage of workplace physical activity programmes in this context is that they ensure employees have peer support from colleagues. Laura Thomas, workplace health specialist at StepJockey, says: “If all [an employee’s] colleagues are doing it, then [they have] got accountability and support, which is really powerful.”

Physical activity programmes

Stair climbing programmes offer an accessible initiative that encourages small, vigorous bouts of physical activity. Thomas explains: “There’s going to be those people in the organisation that usually go to the gym and usually participate in vigorous activity, but there’s also that harder to reach group that don’t and actually encouraging [employees] to take the stairs helps [staff to] do small bouts of vigorous activity without having to go to a gym for an hour or put on gym gear or get on a bike. It’s a very easy, manageable thing to do in their day. It’s really impactful on diabetes.”

Other physical activity initiatives employers can introduce include on-site workouts, offering information on local walking and cycling routes, providing discounted gym membership or launching fitness challenges, for example step counting programmes. Employers could also consider equipping staff with activity trackers; the aggregated data collected from these can then further inform overall health and wellbeing approaches.

Being active day-to-day

The working environment itself can also provide opportunities for employees to be active. For example, Bailey notes that sit-stand desks, height adjustable workstations or treadmill desks can allow employees to be active during working hours. Employers may be daunted by the expense of this, however there are ways this can be cost-effective. “One or two could be installed in a work office and staff could take turns using those, so they’re shared workstations instead,” Bailey explains. “This gives [employees] an opportunity to break up their sitting time and accumulate some light activity.”

Bailey also recommends that employees take regular breaks throughout the working day to walk around and relieve musculoskeletal discomfort. “We recommend to [take a break] every half an hour throughout the work day and maybe take somewhere between a two to five-minute activity break; that’s what [is] going to have the biggest impact on diabetes risk,” he says.

For those undertaking an active commute or participating in lunchtime exercise sessions, employers should ensure to make accessible changing and showering facilities so that staff feel more able to be active during the day yet still be comfortable afterwards. Furthermore, standing or walking meetings can also help incorporate more activity into a working day.

A holistic approach

However, employers need to look at more than just physical activity to help reduce employees’ diabetes risk. Nutrition and sugar intake should also be addressed; these can even be tied in to national awareness campaigns such as national diabetes day on 14 November or sugar-free September and sugar-free February.

Emma Vivo, director at fitness and wellness organisation Incorpore, explains: “[Employers] need to provide employees with knowledge to choose wisely the foods they’re consuming and also [provide] access to those healthy food options. If there is a canteen, it’s providing healthier choices and if there’s vending machines, there are healthier snacking options available now. It’s supporting [physical] activity with a nutritional focus.”

Vivo concludes: “Diabetes is one factor, but there’s a number of inactivity-related illness that are all on an upwards trajectory. There’s several forms of cancer, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and they are all related to physical inactivity and poor diet. If [employers are] looking at initiatives to support this and educate employees, then they’re going to reduce the absence and sickness within their organisation.”