Let’s Get Physical:
Activity-Based Design


Perhaps the greatest risk to personal health at work is simply sitting in your chair. And one of the best things you can do for your body and mind is to get up and move.

The human body is built to move. It follows that the human-centered workplace should provide people with the opportunity for physical activity; with a choice among working postures as well as workspaces. Alert, engaged and healthy workers are most often those who are afforded a stimulating and inspiring work environment that encourages movement—to sit, stand and walk around.

Perhaps the greatest risk to personal health at work is simply sitting in your chair. And one of the best things you can do for your body and mind is to get up and move. We are more alert after taking a walk with a co-worker or friend—and perhaps having an insightful conversation. Likewise, we feel more vital and clear-headed after a run or a workout, as our body releases moodboosting endorphins. And that feeling of well-being is likely to affect the way we interact with others—less negative feelings and fewer expressions of anger, irritation or resentment.

“The human being is designed to move,” says James Levine, an endocrinologist and researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “You need to move your body. If you stop your body, idle it—which sitting is—it crumbles on every level.” What results, is an increased risk of obesity and diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Levine also makes the point that there is large opportunity to use energy while performing non-exercise activity: climbing the stairs to your office, standing up to stretch, walking to a conference room or going outside for a stroll during the lunch hour. Activity need not be a heart-pounding game of squash, and in fact, an hour of vigorous exercise does not neutralize 8 hours of sitting. Dr. Levine notes that if you increase movement throughout the day, you can significantly improve the amount of energy your body uses and over time, improve your general state of health.

Recently, a colleague sent me compelling infographics, which highlight statistics on the detrimental effects of sitting for prolonged periods of time. Personally, I rarely sit at my desk for hours on end. I jump at any chance to walk across the office to talk with a colleague. Not only does it add steps to my day, but I can often be more productive talking with a coworker rather than exchanging a long chain of emails.

how sitting wrecks your body

People with sitting jobs have twice the rate of cardiovascular disease as people with standing jobs. Numerous researchers have linked sitting for long periods of time with a wide range of health concerns, including obesity and cardiovascular disease. Standing requires more muscle activity than sitting, thus offering some benefit with regard to the risks associated with obesity. At the same time, standing for long periods of time can strain lower back muscles and put pressure on legs and feet.

What’s the answer?
• Pace while talking on the phone, organizing papers or eating lunch
• Stand at a sit/stand desk—or take your laptop over to a high countertop
• Walk, rather than gathering around a table, for a meeting
• Program your phone to remind you to change position every half an hour
• Take a break—stand up, stretch and stroll over to the coffee bar
• Walk to work or at least to the bus stop or train platform
• Where possible, join co-workers on the volleyball court, take a yoga or zumba class or simply use your lunch hour to walk to a plaza or stroll through a park

The effects of movement—even leisurely movement—can be profound and include weight loss, increased energy and mental clarity. Even better, the muscle activity required for standing, walking, running and cycling triggers processes related to the proper functioning of all of the body’s organs and systems. Moving jump-starts your heart, fills the lungs and puts your nervous system back into action.

Architects, designers, facilities managers and others who are involved in planning and designing work environments are using this knowledge to create work environments that get people moving. As an example, the new Bullitt Center in Seattle, a six-storey, 50,000-square-foot building designed to “be the greenest commercial building in the world,” promotes occupant health in several specific ways:
• Encourages workers to walk, bicycle or take public transit to work—no parking for automobiles is provided on site;
• Prompts tenants and visitors to walk by placing elevators at the back of the lobby. A dramatic staircase with outdoor views invites people to take the stairs;
• Provides access to views and operable windows;
• Each worker’s desk can be positioned within 30 feet of the building’s huge windows to ensure abundant daylight and fresh air;
• Foregoes materials that contain formaldehyde (NAUF), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or other potentially toxic compounds; and
• Creates an inspiring work setting with attractive architecture and landscape design. A neighborhood pocket park adjacent to the Bullitt Center offers a restorative spot to take lunch or a break.

Attractive stairways, like the Bullitt Center’s glass-enclosed stairs, are an important trend in building design, as are “activated” staircases with landings furnished with bar height tables or lounge chairs. In some cases, staircase steps double as bleacher seating. Other active design strategies include “intentional inefficiencies” that locate printers, copiers and recycling bins at a distance from where people are seated. Company leadership can support active design strategies by offering employees incentives for healthy behaviors such as providing bike storage and repair and lockers for those who cycle to work.

Companies that actively promote movement are beginning to realize positive effects. In 2012, New Balance, one of the world’s leading athletic companies, released the results of its Organizations in Motion™ program, a workplace experiment conducted with Wellness & Prevention, Inc., that measured the impact of physical activity on energy levels, cognition and engagement.

At the end of the 90-day program, 53% of associates who responded to the survey reported taking more frequent breaks and increasing physical activity at work—and 89% stated they would continue to do so. The physical activity appeared to have a positive impact on associates’ energy level with 37% reporting high energy levels in the middle of the day (11% higher than preprogram) and 42% reporting increased engagement and ability to focus. The theory behind Organizations in Motion is similar to that applied to athletic training. Micro-bursts of movement alternating with rest and recovery stimulate flow throughout the body, which leads to a brief period of hyperoxygenation in the brain. The phenomenon lasts only a minute or two, but the effects linger—increasing energy and attentiveness.

A recent article in the Business Insider describes Facebook’s new headquarters in Menlo Park, California, noting that employees can choose to sit or stand at work—and many choose to stand. It seems that a trend of standing is taking off and isn’t limited to social media cultures like that of Facebook. Twitter has located its new headquarters in a restored Art Deco building in downtown San Francisco that features a yoga studio and roof garden. And those who work at Nike in Beaverton, Oregon, stay healthy by playing squash, running on a track, taking a swim, using the 34-foot climbing wall or trying the Tour de France simulator. Across the country, corporate fitness centers are turning up. At General Mills in Minneapolis, employees not only work out in the gym, but go outside for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing—“authentic” forms of exercise that challenge the entire body and offer psychological benefits as well.

Accenture in New York takes a very holistic approach to employee health with programs to get employees to move, eat well and reduce stress. The high-tech consulting company also provides subsidized childcare, a nursing mothers’ program and generous maternity leave. Accenture’s 10,000 Steps a Day program encourages employees to get up and move, while the Athletic- Minded Traveler helps people to stay active while on the road by supplying maps of running routes and the locations of health clubs, lap pools and other resources. There’s confidential support for mental health issues, as well as online coaching for nutrition, stress and exercise.

Research continues to offer new insight and information. The British Government has initiated The Active Buildings study as an investigation into how the spatial layout of office buildings influences the step count and sitting time of office workers. World experts in Epidemiology & Public Health, Health Psychology and the Built Environment & Spatial Design are working together to develop novel ways to promote indoor movement and to assess building potential for activity generation. The study is in process, but supports the concept that officebased physical activity strategies are important and warrant investigation.