Research Blog

A More Active Workplace

at work taking the stairs increases fitness, health and productivity

A study finds that office intervention strategies with the aim of increasing physical activity in office workers can successfully reduce sedentary time at work. This leads to further questions such as the effect of reducing work sedentary time by a slight amount and how to improve employee retention in a health intervention program.

According to a report in US News and World Report, the average American spends 8 hours sitting on a daily basis. People with a desk job occupation tack on many additional hours a day of sitting with few breaks. These long periods of sedentary behavior are responsible for causing a wide array of health problems because metabolic parameters are driven down for an extended period of time.  However, cultural changes in the office may help workers be more active in the office. A study from Australia showed that healthy workplace interventions reduces sedentary time for office workers (Participatory Workplace Interventions Can Reduce Sedentary Time for Office Workers, 2013. Parry, et al.).  

In the study, Australian government office workers were assigned to one of three groups: active office, physical activity and office ergonomics. All three groups actively came up with a strategy for implementing their health plan. The active office group were assigned to develop a plan that involved being more active during production time. For example, the active office group implemented a communal standing desk and a treadmill desk that employees could work at.  The physical activity group was instructed to develop a plan to be more physically active during their breaks. The office ergonomics group was told to create and implement the installation of ergonomic office equipment, such as firm chairs that require muscle activation while sitting.

Together, the intervention groups slightly, but significantly, reduced sedentary time. Sedentary time across groups was reduced 1.7% across groups, the equivalent of 7-8 minutes less sedentary time per a day at work. Although the active office intervention maintained a trend to reduced sedentary time compared to the other two groups, the difference observed between the different interventions was not significant. A probable reason that the study authors were unable to generate a significant difference between groups was low power as a result of a small amount of participants finishing the study.  Across groups, and particularly the active office and physical activity intervention groups, the retention rate was alarmingly low.

treadmill desk

For an intervention to have practical applications, participants must be willing to stick through the program. The low retention rate in the discussed study was likely due to a combination of factors, one of which was probably the follow up assessments that the experiment required subjects to participate in. The government organization that had the highest retention rate provided its employees the most flexibility in scheduling work hours. Maintaining a high retention rate must be an objective of any successful office health intervention program.

Another question that arises from this study is what are the health consequences of reducing sedentary time at the workplace by 10-30 minutes? Numerous studies suggest that it is extended periods of sedentary behavior that are so detrimental to our health (Physiological and health implications of a sedentary lifestyle, 2010. Tremblay, et al.).  Furthermore, sedentary behavior is correlated with all-cause mortality (Sitting Time and Mortality from All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer, 2009. Katzmarzyk, et al.). The authors from this 2009 study concluded that breaking up extended periods of sedentary behavior would likely have positive affects on individual health indicators and all-cause mortality.

Finally, being healthier at work can save time and therefore increase productivity. A study published in the Canadian Medical Journal followed hospital workers during work. They found that taking the stairs rather than the elevator saved each worker an average of 15 minutes over the course of the workday (Elevators or stairs? 2011.  Shah, et al.). Of course, one’s work environment will change how effective taking the stairs is for increasing productivity, but the point is staying healthy does not have to be a sacrifice.

In summary, it appears that workplace physical activity intervention programs could cause significant health benefits to participants if implemented successfully.

Eat Breakfast, Exercise and Be Happy

Breakfast of eggs sausage fast and coffee.

Eating breakfast before exercise leaves you feeling better and less fatigued a recent study shows.

A defining part of my college experience was slumbering through class in a tired, grumpy stupor. I was a collegiate runner, which meant six days a week I would wake up and go straight to cross country practice without breakfast. My body was forced to grind through workouts on the daily coming off an overnight fast. A study published earlier this year in Appetite (yes, this a scientific journal, not a food catalog as its name might suggest) found that eating breakfast before exercise attenuates feelings of fatigue and lifts mood later in the day. This holds true even if a recovery snack follows the exercise bout. Breakfast before exercise, it turns out, positively effects cognitive performance, mood and fatigue later in the day (Breakfast consumption and exercise interact to affect cognitive performance and mood later in the day.  A randomized controlled trial, 2013.  Veasey, et al.).

The design of the study is depicted in the figure below. Male subjects were assigned to participate in four different trials in a randomized order. The trials were no breakfast, no exercise; breakfast, no exercise; no breakfast, exercise; breakfast, exercise. The exercise protocol entailed running on a treadmill at 60% of VO2 Max. Subjects performed cognitive tasks to assess mood and cognitive functioning seven different times over the course of the experiment. 

study experiment design or overview

The results of the study are as follows.  Breakfast consumption, regardless of whether the subject exercised or not, left the subject with slower cognitive function.  This was assessed with four choice reaction time accuracy. “Food comas”, apparently, cause poor reaction time in addition to leaving us tired. The figure below shows this result.

 The effect of breakfast consumption or omission (B or NB) on Four Choice Reaction Time accuracy following a mixed-macronutrient drink in active males. Values are change from baseline ± SEM, ( n  = 12).

To assess cognitive function a Stroop test was administered. The Stroop test involves naming the color font or a word. For example, [YELLOW]. The answer would be green.  Those who ate breakfast, but did not exercise, performed the worst on the Stroop test. Eating breakfast and exercising increased accuracy on the Stroop test, as did fasting and not exercising. Exercising and skipping breakfast caused the best reaction time. Not surprisingly, exercising and skipping breakfast resulted in the most fatigue. However, eating breakfast before the bout of exercise fully eliminated all exercise-induced fatigue. These fatigue measurements were taken after a chocolate milk recovery drink was administered to subjects in all four trials. Finally, while exercise without breakfast beforehand caused the highest amounts of tension later in the day, eating breakfast before exercise eliminated this tension.  

The effects of prior breakfast consumption or omission (B or NB) and exercise or rest (E or NE) on (a) Stroop accuracy (b) rapid visual information processing task reaction time (c) mental fatigue and (d) tension

While this study is intriguing, it has several problems. First, we must remember that the aforementioned cognitive and mood assessments are performed with standardized tests, that may or may not translate to everyday life. Second, subjects were allowed to read and relax between tests; in other words, it was a very relaxed environment that may not mirror our daily lives.  

It should be noted that the subjects had 120 minutes between breakfast and the exercise bout.  For many people, this is not practical for two reasons. First, one would have to start eating breakfast prior to 6:00 am to get a 8:00 am workout in. Second, for many people, myself included, 120 minutes is not enough time to digest food before a tough workout.

Nonetheless, this study highlights some interesting interactions between breakfast, exercise and our cognitive state later in the day.

The Effect of Athlete Endorsements on What We Eat

Lebron James basketball player endorses mcdonalds in this TV ad.

Basketball superstar Lebron James (right) in a McDonald’s commercial. A recent study out of Yale finds that the majority of foods and beverages that athletes endorse are unhealthy and, worse yet, often target adolescents.

Athlete endorsements are commonplace on our television sets and other media outlets. According to a recent study appearing in Pediatrics, nearly a quarter (24%) of superstar athlete endorsements are for food and beverage products (Athlete Endorsements in Food Marketing, 2013. Marie Bragg, et al.). The study, led by a Yale health policy expert, found that an alarming proportion of the food and beverage products that athletes endorse are unhealthy.

The study used Businessweek’s 2010 athlete power rankings, a list of the 100 most influential athletes ranked by endorsement value and prominence in their respective sports. The food and beverage brands that these one hundred successful athletes endorsed were then evaluated for nutritional quality. Foods were designated unhealthy if they were found to be “energy-dense and nutrient-poor.” A startling 79% of the endorsed brands were designated “energy-dense and nutrient-poor." Beverages were assessed by calorie origination. The study reported that 93.4% of the athlete-advertised beverages had all of their calories stemming from added sugar.

The worst offenders were football player Peyton Manning (NFL), tennis player Serena Williams, and Lebron James (NBA). Peyton Manning Serena Williams and Lebron James had the most endorsements for energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods.  Their endorsement portfolio includes McDonalds (Lebron), Bubblicious Bubble Gum (Lebron), Papa John’s Pizza (Manning), Sprite (Lebron), Oreos (Williams) and Gatorade (Manning, Williams). Studies show that athlete’s endorsements of food products lead parents to perceive the endorsed food as healthier than food not endorsed by athletes (Parent’s Responses to nutrient claims and sports celebrity endorsements on energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods: an experimental study, 2011. Dixon, et al.) Unfortunately, when deciding what food to buy, it is more convenient to judge nutritional quality by recalling paid endorsements rather than reading nutritional labels.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of athlete endorsements of unhealthy food and beverages is who they target. Adolescents age 12 to 17 saw the most food commercials with athlete endorsements (an average of 32.5 commercials over the year 2010). The mixed message of physical prowess and unhealthy diet that athlete endorsements send youth can be hard for this audience to decipher.  With the growing youth obesity epidemic, finding ways of curtailing youth exposure to athlete endorsements of unhealthy foods appears most pressing.

coca cola sponsored the London olympics

However, as the study authors points out, it is not just direct athlete endorsements that tie unhealthy food with athletics. For example, the 2012 London Olympics were sponsored by McDonalds and Coca-Cola. However, the International Olympic Committee received public criticism for drawing MdDonalds and Coca-Cola as sponsors. More public pressure on athletes and athletic institutions may help stem the athletic community from endorsing unhealthy food and beverages.

Whether right or wrong, athletes undoubtedly endorse a proportionally high amount of unhealthy foods and beverages. We must determine how to prevent and mitigate the negative effects of these endorsements on our society’s health.  In recognizing the impact that professional athletes have on youth health, the NFL, NBA and MLS have independently launched youth fitness and health programs. It is important that we all, youth and adults alike, recognize that athlete endorsements are founded upon financial interests, which athletes are free to make. Athlete endorsements do not reflect the lifestyles or diets of the athletes themselves. Finally, most professional athletes are driven by a desire to leave a legacy; professional athletes should recognize that, for better or worse, the companies and brands an athlete chooses to associate with can shape his or her legacy.

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