The importance of exercise
in a remote or hybrid
world of work

29 October 2021
Movement is a vital component to health and wellbeing, and the health benefits of regular structured exercise and physical movement are hard to ignore. Everyone benefits from exercise, regardless of gender, age and/or physical ability. However, the vast majority of us spend many hours every day in a seated position as we work away the hours on a laptop or computer. In many ways the pandemic has exacerbated this sitting time and ended our commute, which included walking, cycling, climbing stairs, etc. To negate the negative effects of this excessive sitting, which is estimated to be as much as an additional 4 hours a day, it is important to be conscious of our movement habits and to plan for some regular exercise and exercise habits.

The recent Allianz Partner’s ‘Working From Home (WFH) Survey’ results have highlighted the importance of consciously making time for exercise in our work day. Daily life and daily routines were significantly impacted during the pandemic lockdowns and while remote working. One area of particular focus for participants WFH was that of regular movement, physical activity and general exercise. The report highlighted that for the majority of workers, exercise was a key factor to be aware of and be proactive about; however this did not always translate into adequate action in maintaining a healthy physical routine while WFH. With the new hybrid way of working fast approaching, it is still an area of concern and development.

Interestingly, the top scoring affirmation reported by participants of the WFH survey was a feeling of being physically well with a 72 out of 100 positive score, whilst the lowest scoring affirmation was that body weight had been negatively impacted with a 26 out of 100 negative score. The general response to statements about activity was neutral across most participants, whilst the lowest scoring pillar of well-being was food, as participants strongly disagreed when asked if they were eating better when WFH. 

There were multiple factors to consider with regards to the results of this survey on exercise such as gym closures, 5 km limits on travel, the cancellation of sporting events, a lack of a commute to work and access to more food and opportunities to snack while WFH. 

Whilst it is great news that participants rated their feeling physical well so highly and the neutral rating for activity suggested that participants were not entirely sedentary, there is a general need to address energy balance and to keep the body physically healthy and physically well long-term. Aside from addressing nutrition and a potential reduction in caloric intake, an increase in energy output via exercise can counter weight gain, as well as reaping the myriad of health benefits frequent exercise provides.

The list of benefits of regular exercise is vast and includes weight management, the associated implications of obesity, an increase in insulin sensitivity which can in turn prevent the development of type 2 diabetes, an increase in cardiac health, a reduction in mortality due to heart disease, an increase in bone density and the subsequent management or prevention of osteoporosis. Increased cell renewal also occurs due to autophagy, plus the strengthening of muscles, connective tissues, joints and the associated benefits of each, not to mention injury prevention and quicker recovery from injury, improved mental health and well-being. The list goes on and on!

Evidence also shows that regular physical activity provides the following long-term benefits for adults:

  • Less weight gain
  • Lower risk of early death
  • Lower risk of stroke
  • Lower risk of coronary heart disease
  • Lower risk of high blood pressure
  • Lower risk of unhealthy blood lipid profile
  • Lower risk of metabolic syndrome
  • Lower risk of colon and breast cancer
  • Fewer falls
  • Reduced levels of depression
  • Better cognitive function in older adults

According to the global recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO), adults (aged 18-64) should be aiming for at least 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity a week, or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity a week or an equivalent combination throughout the week. 

For additional health benefits, it is suggested that adults do some resistance training or ‘muscle strengthening’ activities at a moderate or greater intensity that involves all major muscle groups for at least 2 days a week.

For older adults (ages 65+) the same recommendations are suggested for additional health benefits. For pregnant and postpartum women, at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity is recommended.

Moderate aerobic exercise usually involves the heart beating faster than normal and an increase in breath rate. On a scale of 0-10 of an individual’s personal capacity, it would fall around 5/6.

Examples include:

  • Brisk walking
  • Jogging
  • Hiking
  • Cycling
  • Swimming
  • Gym cardio machines (steady state cardio)

Vigorous aerobic exercise usually involves the heart and breath rate even faster than moderate. On a scale of 0-10 of an individual’s personal capacity, it would fall around 7/8+

Examples include:

  • Running
  • Cycling
  • Swimming
  • Sports such as football, basketball, tennis
  • Martial arts
  • High intensity Interval training

Resistance training or weight bearing exercises are exercises that increase skeletal muscle strength, power, endurance and mass.

Examples include:

  • Weights
  • Weight machines
  • Resistance bands
  • Calisthenics
  • Bodyweight exercises
While these are general guidelines and classifications for exercise, it is important to recognise that the effects can carry over in different activities. For example, weight training can yield an aerobic benefit while cycling uphill can yield a resistance training effect. Some positions in yoga and pilates can even get the heart rate up vigorously. 

It is also important not to feel overwhelmed by the recommendations and realise that any physical activity is better than no exercise. For those WFH and sitting at screens, simply taking time to stand up for 2 minutes every hour will make a difference in the body and have positive health outcomes.

Dr. James Levine is an expert on the topic of the damaging effects of prolonged sitting and obesity. He states that “…at a molecular level, getting out of your chair, even for a short time, activates multiple molecular mechanisms in the musculature that improve insulin handling”. He is also quoted on a podcast saying that “…within 2 minutes of getting up, on a fundamental cellular level, your body is changing”.

Aside from planned and structured exercise, the body can also reap the physical benefits of NEAT or non-exercise-activity-thermogenesis. Some people will burn more calories day to day just from the amount of unconscious movement they do. People with physical jobs will experience more NEAT. Gardening, playing with your kids and doing housework will all contribute.

Commuting to work was also how many of us achieved greater NEAT. Unfortunately, in the remote/hybrid working world this form of activity has now been reduced. Fortunately, we can use the time gained instead of commuting to do some planned exercise as well as dedicating time to gardening, playing with your kids, cooking and cleaning. Investing in a stand-up desk at home is a sure fire way to increase your daily NEAT and to reap the physiological changes of standing.

1.       Start off small and build:

The ‘less is more’ approach is a great way to start implementing exercise into your week. Start off setting realistic and achievable goals. Choose a physical activity that is easy to perform and that doesn’t take very long. This could be setting an alarm to get up and stretch while at your desk or going for a 20 minute walk outside before you begin your working day. Why not aim to only speak on the phone while standing for example? Or aim to do 3 x 20 minutes beginner yoga videos spread throughout the week.

Now that society is opening up again, why not book some sessions at the gym. Try giving yourself the goal of merely setting your foot in the door of the gym for 10 minutes 3 times a week. The chances are you will try something and stay longer. Remember when starting off: anything is better than nothing!

Also, the risk of injury is reduced by slowly increasing the exercise load over time. The body needs time to adapt to new physical stimuli.

2.       Attach the habit:

Pairing the habit of exercise to a habit you already find enjoyable can be a powerful way to embed it into your routine. An example of this could be using an exercise bike while watching a tv series you enjoy. Another habit could be doing 10 minutes of yoga before your morning cup of coffee. You could reward yourself with a glass of wine only when you’ve done a workout. Consider your current habits and how you could attach exercise to them.

3.       Get it done early:

As the day goes on, we can begin to feel fatigued (especially if we are busy) and the motivation to get moving can wane. Although sometimes getting our body moving can actually re-energise us and get rid of the feelings of fatigue after work, often getting the chosen exercise done early can allow us to relax after and avoid the possible internal battle of ‘will I?’, ‘wont I’, ‘I’m too tired’ etc.

Knocking off the exercise early is also a great psychological motivator as it brings a real sense of personal achievement. In a remote/hybrid working world, it is now much easier to get exercise done before work in lieu of what was previously our commute, and can be completed on non-office commute days. Getting it done is the key and many people still enjoy breaking a sweat after work to help switch off a busy mind.

4.       Choose a physical activity you enjoy:

Unless you have relentless self-discipline and everlasting motivation, choosing a form of exercise you really dislike might prove difficult in the long run. Opting for the forms of exercise you enjoy the most will allow you to be more consistent. Of course practicality comes into play here; you might enjoy skiing but live far away from the mountains. Opt for an exercise that could easily become a hobby or passion you enjoy or help with a hobby you already have. For example, regular pilates sessions might help your movement quality for your weekend golf. Before you decide if you dislike an exercise, pay attention to the after effects; you can associate the exercise with positive goal orientated outcomes and in turn begin to enjoy the progress and the process!

5.       Make yourself accountable

Signing up for regular classes or hiring a trainer is a great way to make yourself accountable to getting it done. Never before has access to classes and trainers been more readily available online. There are plenty of free workouts and an endless amount of information in the realm of exercise online, but paying for a service or a gym programme might actually help you value it more and get some use out of it. You might not want to miss a workout you are paying for! Being part of a group also creates a good sense of personal accountability and lots of exercise is best enjoyed with others.

Getting a dog that needs regular walks is another great way of making yourself accountable and because we are working remotely, having a dog is more of a possibility.

6.       Choose a social physical activity:

For some individuals the social aspect of exercise can be very rewarding and help with both accountability and fun. A sense of community can be very appealing, especially after the social isolation after multiple lockdowns. Try joining a local running or martial arts club. Accompany some friends or colleagues in a step challenge. There are plenty of Facebook Groups for every exercise discipline where people can ask questions and support each other.

7.       Recognise the power of consistency

All the above tips help with being consistent. Consistency is the most important aspect of physical activity. The best workout in the world means nothing if it is only done once a month, while a mediocre workout done multiple times a week will be way more effective. If you are set up to be consistent, you are set up for success. WFH or hybrid working also allows for at least one of these environments to be set up for exercise success.

Although we spend a lot of time staring at screens, the odds are now stacked in our favour to get exercise done in this remote/hybrid working world. We have extra time and even if we don’t want to pay top dollar for expensive classes or gym memberships, the internet is a goldmine for exercise videos on all disciplines. Home exercise equipment can be shipped in a matter of hours. Pay attention to the practical tips we have outlined and set a goal based off them.

Enjoy and reap the rewards!

For more information visit the Allianz Partner’s Global Working From Home Survey