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U.S. President Barack Obama, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Prime Minister Stephen Harper walk to the Rose Garden in April. Research shows that strategic thinking can be enhanced by physical activity. (Paul Chiasson/Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)
U.S. President Barack Obama, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Prime Minister Stephen Harper walk to the Rose Garden in April. Research shows that strategic thinking can be enhanced by physical activity. (Paul Chiasson/Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Workplace well-being

Even a short walk can boost ‘executive control’ Add to ...

Jamie Burr is not one to sit around – not even when he’s meeting with colleagues at the University of Prince Edward Island, where he’s a kinesiology professor in the faculty of applied human sciences. An expert in the health effects of inactivity and a proponent of “walk-and-talk” meetings, Dr. Burr maintains that moving around makes your brain work better.

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“Research shows that it’s not just fitness that’s important for overall health but that sedentary time can have negative health consequences,” he adds. “People shouldn’t be sitting for more than 30 minutes at a time. Doing so affects everything from mental health to the musculo-skeletal system to cardiovascular health and brain health.

“Sometimes we’ll do an actual structured meeting where we’ll say, ‘Meet you at the outdoor or indoor track,’ and we’ll walk laps and talk,” Dr. Burr adds of his non-stationary conferences. “More often, we’ll do things like meet outside our building and walk together to the coffee shop, grab a coffee to go, and then continue walking rather than meeting for coffee at Starbucks and then promptly sitting in a chair.”

Evidence supports the assertion that sitting at a desk all day is hazardous for your health and that activity can make you a more focused, productive employee or leader.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Bethesda, Md., adults who do aerobic exercise show greater task-related activity in the region of the brain associated with attention, while aerobically trained rats learn mazes two to 12 times faster than those which are not. A meta-analysis of several studies examining the link between exercise and cognition in adults, meanwhile, found that physical activity has the greatest impact on “executive control,” which includes tasks such as scheduling, planning and multitasking, as well as working memory.

Increased flow of blood and oxygen to the brain as well as higher levels of mood-boosting chemicals are among the factors cited by a Dutch study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine earlier this year as helping to explain the “significant positive relationship” between physical activity and improved academic performance.

Veronica Marsden, president of Tri Fit, an Oakville, Ont.-based company that helps corporations in Canada and the United States develop health and wellness programs, says there’s no denying the role physical activity plays in strategic and creative thinking – and ultimately on an organization’s bottom line.

“When you get up and you move, you increase brain activity, and that’s when you’re innovative; that’s when you come up with ideas,” Ms. Marsden says. “If you’re active, you’ve got a lot more energy, and it makes sense that the more energy you have, the better you do things, whether it’s performing in sports or performing at work. You can do more.”

Sneaking exercise in throughout the day – a minute here, five minutes there – is an effective way to get people up and moving, especially those who might lack the motivation to go for lunch-hour power walks on their own, Ms. Marsden says.

Some simple ways corporations can get staff members out of their seats? Encourage employees to leave something they need during the day in their car so they have to walk to the parking lot to get it. Do away with preferred parking spots – “they’re counterproductive,” Ms. Marsden says. Once a week, block inter-office e-mail so that people have to get up and walk to their co-worker to speak in person. And while everyone knows it’s better to take the stairs than the elevator, most stairwells are dark and dingy. Ensure stairwells are well lit; post interesting information or art work on the walls.

Another idea is to conduct stretch breaks for entire departments a couple times a day to relieve the pressure that comes from hunching over a computer. Besides helping people to feel better, Ms. Marsden says, such a simple strategy can also lead to cost savings and decreased time lost from work by reducing the rate of repetitive-strain injuries.

Developing a culture of activity and well-being helps with employee engagement, whether a company has 20 employees or 20,000, Ms. Marsden notes. She’s a fan of walk-and-talk meetings as well, and not just because of their physical benefits: “It’s amazing how much more creative you are and how you can break down barriers when you’re walking together side by side and not facing someone across the boardroom table.”

New technology could also help office workers boost their brain activity by getting them out of their chairs. Certified exercise physiologist Marc Faktor, “chief exercise officer” of MDF Wellness, a Vancouver health-promotion consulting company, has developed a gas-powered hydraulic desk that adjusts to a standing workstation. He’s arranging for independent research into the physiological adaptations and health benefits that occur as a result of standing, as opposed to sitting, while working.

“As a society, we’re subjected to larger workloads than ever before, we’re sedentary for the majority of our waking hours, and our health is taking a beating,” Mr. Faktor says on his cellphone, while walking. “Sitting is killing us.”

The corporate movement toward movement is only going to grow, Dr. Burr says.

“We’ve helped companies convert old boardrooms into walk-and-talk meeting rooms by removing the table and taping a ‘track’ to the floor,” he says. “In some places road cycling is starting to take the place of golf for business meetings, which I think is great. People are starting to realize that you can get on some nice country roads, ride two abreast, and talk shop the whole time you ride.”

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