From in-office yoga sessions to group lunchtime walks, more workplaces are offering their employees the perk of accessing exercise during the working day. But are the results worth the sacrifice of company time? Sadia Nowshin investigates.
When you join a new company, the most common way to get to know your colleagues tends to be over a glass of wine or a pint down the local pub. You don’t expect bonding to take the form of breathing heavily as everyone tries to hold a particularly unflattering pose on yoga mats – on display to anyone who happens to glance into the window-lined meeting room.
But that’s exactly where I found myself, four weeks into a new job.
Teaching myself yoga throughout lockdown gave me an activity to focus on at the end of tiring days, and I often turn to it whenever I’m feeling in need of a reset. But, when ‘Yoga Thursdays’ popped up in my office calendar invite, following a YouTube video in my bedroom felt very different to limbering up with people I barely knew – especially in a professional space.
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In a bid to try new activities that I’d normally swerve from fear of embarrassment, I added ‘yoga at work’ to my other goals of learning to swim and trying Zumba in my spare time.
So, at 1.15pm on a Thursday in the fourth week of my new job, I changed into yoga clothes and somewhat meekly padded over to the meeting room at the end of the office.
It felt like a transgression to be away from my desk for another hour on top of my lunch break, and I quietly waited for someone to ask where I thought I was wandering off to. But aside from wishing me luck for my first session, nobody so much as batted an eyelid.
I met the instructor, rolled out a mat and started in a seated position. And after hunching over a laptop all morning, I emerged an hour later feeling like a glowstick that had been satisfyingly snapped to release neon energy.
Ashleigh Bird, who works for the Youth Sport Trust, found a similar benefit when taking advantage of her employer’s Active 30 offer, which allows employees an extra 30 minutes every day for exercise. The scheme came after the company – which encourages families to fit in physical activity every day – realised they had to “practice what they preached” and implement the same ethos in their office.
Having struggled with her mental health in the past, Bird noticed that using her allocated active time has gone a long way towards “improving my mood, reducing my anxiety and helping me be more productive in my job”.
That boost is backed up by science: studies have found that exercise lasting as little as five to 30 minutes is “associated with improved psychological wellbeing”, proving that even a short break is worth getting up for.
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Back pain is a huge problem that office exercise can reduce
A common risk of office working, osteopath Olayinka Egerton-Shyngle explains, is that bad desk posture can affect your intradiscal pressure – that’s the pressure your spine takes on doing everyday activities. Compared to standing upright, unsupported sitting increases the lumbar load by 40%, and leaning forward in your seat increases it by more than 100%.
Shockingly, the handy dual screen set-up can increase it by as much as 400%, as workers tend to combine leaning forwards with a rotation in their spine to see both screens. The gradual effect of this pressure isn’t to be underestimated: it’s often compared to the risky consequences of lifting weights in the gym without adequate support.
Like many office workers, my back suffers as a result of the desk/commuting routine – but I feel a real difference after our office yoga sessions. That’s because, Egerton-Shyngle says, exercise like yoga allow us to recline or lay flat and engage our core muscles, and that’s great to combat intradiscal pressure, because reclining decreases the load affecting the spine by as much as 80%.
Benefits of exercising at work or during work hours
Despite the benefits of taking an active break, some claim that exercise at work is inappropriate, that doing a downwards dog next to Dave from accounting shouldn’t be hosted in a professional setting. Others see it as a waste of company time, envisioning the tasks that could be ticked off in the hour spent in different poses. But allocating time for employees to access exercise can also be beneficial for the company.
Fresh Perspective Resourcing is one employer recognising the benefits of exercise breaks. Managing director Laura Leyland noticed that since introducing weekly ‘Fit Fridays’, productivity among employees who take part has “soared”.
She tells Stylist: “It invigorates them for the afternoon and forces them to take a break from their desks.” In return for the sacrifice of time, the employers get “a motivated, happy, engaged and loyal team”.
That energy boost, fitness expert Sarah Campus notes, “is noticeable within weeks of implementing an exercise regime”, especially if scheduled in the morning when “you are naturally more alert, less sluggish and have less water on board”.
Again, the science agrees: exercise has been linked to improvements in cognitive performance, encouraging blood flow to the brain and boosting everything from multitasking efficiency to creative thinking. Employees who enjoy moderate exercise have been found to “have higher work-quality work and better job performance” compared to those who stay sedentary.
Feeling valued at work
But the main benefit of offering these perks is perhaps best summarised in Leyland’s explanation of why her company started offering an exercise scheme: “It’s because we care about them.”
On emerging refreshed from my yoga class, albeit sweatier than I expected to be at 2pm on a Thursday, that was exactly the takeaway I had. My employer was happy to sacrifice an hour that could have been spent working towards targets in order that I could work on my wellbeing.
Rather than just claiming to support employees, giving people the time and resources to move is a huge way of proving that commitment. And, as I can attest to first hand, it’s an incredible way of fostering a more positive, energetic and engaged office environment.
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