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Take a Hike: Encouraging Employees to Walk Offers Healthy Returns

Go ahead – tell your employees to take a hike. A new study of employees in the United States and the United Kingdom suggests that encouraging workers to engage in regular, low-impact exercise can lead to improved productivity and, ultimately, a healthier bottom line.

The study, a combined effort from the Foundation for Chronic Disease Prevention in the Workplace (FCDP) and Lancaster University Centre of Organizational Health and Wellbeing in England, examined the impact of the Global Corporate Challenge, a corporate health program. A total of 752 U.K.- and U.S.-based employees of varying age, gender, health and fitness levels participated in the study.

"Businesses are acknowledging the importance of investment in employee health and well-being, both physically and psychologically. However, a lack of knowledge and moreover evidentiary proof presents a real barrier," said FCDP Research Director Dr. David Batman. "Our study aimed to remedy this evidence gap and provide a clinical evaluation of workplace wellness in action."

Study subjects were provided pedometers and challenged to walk 10,000 steps per day – a practice in line with the World Health Organization’s recommendation for an active lifestyle – over a period of 16 weeks. Self-reported questionnaires and on-site biometric screening recorded their physical activity levels, physical and psychological health and performance indicators.

The study found that this low-impact employee wellness initiative resulted in the following physical and psychological benefits:

· Increased physical activity levels, with a 40 percent increase in employees achieving 10,000 steps a day and a 47 percent increase in employees achieving 7,500 steps a day.
· Improved physical condition, with 62 percent reducing their waistline circumference (about 2 inches on average); 58 percent achieving weight loss (about 6 pounds on average); 52 percent reducing their body fat percentage (10 percent on average); and 48 percent reducing their Body Mass Index (BMI).
· Improved self-esteem, with a 52 percent reduction in employees reporting feelings of worthlessness; a 35 percent increase in employees reporting self-confidence; and a 28 percent reduction in employees reporting feelings of unhappiness and depression.
· Reduced stress levels, with a 17 percent reduction in employees reporting lost sleep over worry and a 12-15 percent reduction in reported stress levels across a spectrum of personal and professional factors.
· Improved work performance, with a 17 percent increase in employees reporting optimum productivity levels and a 12 percent increase in employees reporting excellent concentration levels.

This type of wellness initiative also offered immediate and measurable performance benefits to employers, including improved employee morale, engagement and productivity. Furthermore, study data indicated employees continued to adopt active lifestyle habits after the program's conclusion. This suggests a sustained return, as well as an anticipated reduction in absenteeism and sick leave and a decline in health care pensions and payouts over the long term.

Best of all, these results may be attainable because the fitness initiative – walking – is accessible to almost everyone.

"Walking has the advantage of other forms of physical activity in that it is easy to incorporate into one’s daily routine – and hence this makes it more sustainable," said Susan Cartwright, a professor at Lancaster University.

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