Less exercise during COVID-19 pandemic impacted work productivity

Study finds that during covid-19 restrictions only 37 percent of Australians met physical activity recommendations.

Story by Drish Lokee.

Most countries imposed social restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and encouraged remote working. While this reduced the risk of transmission, studies have found that that isolation increased levels of loneliness and mental distress which could develop in sedentary behaviour at work.

Dr Jayden Hunter from La Trobe Rural Health School in Bendigo led a team which assessed the reduction in physical activity that affects health behaviours, work ability, and job performance during COVID-19 lockdowns. A cross-sectional survey was used to gather responses from employees in Australia and New Zealand between June and August 2020.

The study found positive associations between people's physical activity levels and their reported physical and mental work abilities and job productivity. According to the findings, regular exercise may increase work ability and reduce absenteeism and presenteeism.

“Research has shown that people who engage in higher levels of aerobic exercise, like swimming, cycling, walking, jogging, have less sick leave from their jobs, and are more productive with their work tasks," says Dr Hunter.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that adults engage in 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week. Dr Rebecca Meiring, a project collaborator from the University of Auckland, believes sufficient amounts of physical activity and minimising sedentary behaviour is important not just for productivity, but also for preventing and managing chronic diseases.

“There are multiple areas of health that benefit from spending at least 150 minutes per week in moderate intensity physical activity and less time in sedentary behaviour,” says Dr Meiring. “Sufficient exercise can improve your cardiovascular health, your metabolic health and also have benefits to mental health.”

However, research shows that even before the pandemic, less than one half of all adults globally met these guidelines, and in Australia, only 15 percent of adults reported meeting both the aerobic and strength exercise guidelines on a weekly basis. In the study, Dr Hunter found that about 37 percent of the people surveyed met the exercise guidelines.

To ensure acceptable levels of being present and promote good work ability, Dr Meiring believes employers could create working environments that support engagement in physical activity.

“Whether it be by promoting standing meetings, providing sit to stand desks, ensuring access to outside areas for lunchbreaks, incentivising or subsidising being a member of a gym or sports club.”

Dr Hunter and his fellow researchers have collected survey-based data every six months since 2020. In the future this will allow them to observe long term trends like changes in behaviour and effects of exercise levels during COVID-19.