Wellbeing and Mental Health

Why movement is the best prescription for a healthy workforce

Woman rests after a workout in the gym. By encouraging movement and exercise, employers around the world have a unique opportunity to help build a physically and mentally healthy workforce.

By encouraging movement and exercise, employers around the world have a unique opportunity to help build a physically and mentally healthy workforce. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Emma Mason Zwiebler
Chief Executive Officer, World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI)
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • Declining physical activity levels have reached a crisis point, resulting in heightened rates of non-communicable diseases.
  • Many of these diseases, like obesity, are preventable — but encouraging movement in all aspects of life is key.
  • Employers have an important role to play in mitigating the growing health burden by facilitating more physical activity at the workplace and in the workforce.

The average person spends about a third of their life at work. With the rise of technology and automation reducing the physical demands of many jobs, a significant proportion of the workforce spends their day sitting at a desk leading to increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

As a former professional athlete, I’ve experienced this shift first hand. Transitioning from being a professional badminton player to a sports lawyer in my twenties was professionally rewarding — but I was only able to maintain good health by ensuring I moved every morning.

My sports career taught me the importance of an active lifestyle. Running to work became my tool to preserve mental and physical health in a sedentary and often high-stress environment. You don’t need to have been a former professional athlete or run marathons (or even run at all!) to improve your health through movement. But worryingly, many do not move enough or at all, and that has serious health consequences.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 28% of adults do not meet the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week to maintain good health. A staggering 81% of adolescents are deemed insufficiently physically active, raising concerns about their future levels of participation and health as they enter adulthood and the workforce.

Ensuring the health and well-being of the workforce is critical in driving economic stability and maintaining a well-functioning society.

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The impact of inactivity

Lack of physical activity is a major risk factor for heart disease, obesity, depression, type 2 diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). The statistics are stark: nearly one billion people are affected by obesity, one in eight by mental health disorders and 74% of global deaths are due to NCDs.

This health crisis also poses a significant economic challenge. By 2030, the cost of lost productivity due to depression is projected to reach $16 trillion, and obesity-related costs are estimated to hit $3 trillion.

If inactivity levels remain unchanged or get worse, at least 500 million more people will suffer from ill health attributable to insufficient physical activity by 2030, costing at least $300 billion to global public healthcare systems.

Physical activity: Key to a healthy workforce

In a post-COVID world, employees are increasingly prioritizing health and well-being and investments in employee health are proven to deliver substantial returns. Physical activity is a critical part of any workplace health initiative.

Physical activity is easy to understand, its impacts are visible and its positive effects are numerous in the short and long term. Supporting all employees to be more physically active will go a long way towards turning the tide on the growing health crisis affecting workforces worldwide.

How employers can promote physical activity

Promoting and enabling more physical activity in the workplace doesn’t need to be a mammoth task.

Simple initiatives that don’t compromise day-to-day performance, such as setting up physical activity opportunities at lunchtime, encouraging walking meetings, supporting membership in exercise/fitness facilities or incentivizing active transport (i.e. walking or cycling) to work and elsewhere, can foster a healthier, more productive working environment and inspire family and friends.

For the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI) the promotion of physical activity is integral to our industry and is a key strategic priority for the WFSGI and our members. With over 70% of the global sporting goods industry represented by the WFSGI members, we have a powerful collective platform and responsibility to strive for a healthier, more active planet.

Core to our work is making sure that our members have a seat at the table when it comes to addressing challenges and bridging the gap between industry and health.

WFSGI ASICS healthy workforce Movement for Mind programme mental health breathwork meditation.
WFSGI member ASICS is currently running a Movement for Mind programme aimed at improving mental health by combining movement with mindfulness, breathwork and meditation. Image: ASICS

Cooperating to revolutionize workforce health

As called for in United Nations reports and the SDG/2030 Agenda, the business community can and must contribute to reversing the burden of NCD and mental health in all communities.

In line with this global goal, the WFSGI and our members have a clear focus on tackling the global physical inactivity challenge. This will pay dividends in reduced health and economic burdens on the private and public sectors and contribute to the shift to a health and well-being society.

Working together is key. Whether through best practice sharing on community sports initiatives, taking inspiration from successful marketing campaigns to reach people looking to improve their mental health or campaigning for better local cycling infrastructure around offices so workers have an active commute option. It’s clear that working together to tackle the physical inactivity crisis can help people achieve their potential at work and in wider life.

All employers should look at their workplaces and think about how they can help people integrate movement and physical activity into their day. Making physical activity easy to achieve for employees can help transform their lives, your business and our economies.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Wellbeing and Mental HealthJobs and the Future of Work
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