Exercise to engage

Two recent TV programmes, both aimed at improving children’s learning, shared an intervention to make pupils more alert and engaged.  The intervention was exercise. This set me off thinking about whether exercise could help employers engage their employees, and if so, how could employers facilitate it. 

As the BBC programmes, Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys and The Classroom Experiment demonstrated, and several scientific papers have declared, physical activity can help people mentally, socially and physically.   But being aware of these benefits is one thing, enabling people to exercise seems to be something else.

UK companies may argue that they already run health promotion campaigns and encourage staff to be active.  Some even supply on-site gyms or pay employees’ health & fitness club membership fees.  Despite this, “not enough time” is the most common reason that less than 28% of adults take sufficient physical activity (i.e. moderate physical activity for 30 minutes at least five times a week). 

So what can be done to address this complaint?  Interestingly the two schools programmes might help us answer this.  In The Classroom Experiment pupils were expected to get up 30 minutes earlier every day for one term so that they could participate in exercise classes before the school day began – as a result, participation rates varied.  In contrast, in Gareth Malone’s classes, exercise was integrated into lessons – unsurprisingly participation rates were high.  Like the teachers in The Classroom Experiment expecting pupils to be motivated enough to give up some of their free time for physical activity, employers usually expect staff to work out in their own time – often before or after work.  So perhaps it’s not surprising in a culture which has the longest working hours in Europe so few people in the UK meet the recommended minutes of sport and active recreation a week.   Understanding this though may provide the key to solving the problem – instead of fitting a workout into a rushed session outside the so-called ‘nine to five’, with a little imagination and organisation, the workplace setting affords a great opportunity for people to be more active.

Indeed, maybe it’s time to take a leaf out of the Chinese workplace.  After an absence of three years in which obesity levels have been growing, mandatory workplace calisthenics have been reintroduced in Beijing.  Four million workers are expected to participate in eight minute sessions at 10am and 3pm each day. 

Unison Media have worked with many of the top health & fitness brands in the UK, so to explore how to encourage your employees to be more active, or to discuss exercise’s role in employee engagement please contact gill@unisonmedia.co.uk



Dugdill L., Brettle, A., Hulme, C., McCluskey, S., & Long, A.F. (2008).  Workplace physical activity interventions: a systematic review. International Journal of Workplace Health Management, 1, 20-40.

Kerr, J., Griffiths, A., & Cox, T. (Eds.). (1996). Workplace health, employee fitness and exercise.  London: Taylor Francis.

Taylor, C.B., Sallis, J.F., & Needle, R. (1985). The relation of physical activity and exercise to mental health. Public Health Reports, 100, 195-202.







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