Laura Johnson asks is colleague camaraderie the secret to achieving New Year fitness goals?

January is here and after a gluttonous festive break your employees are bounding into the office, with shiny new trainers in hand and boasting of great intentions to turn over a new fitness leaf in 2015. Yes, getting fit and losing weight still top the charts of the most common New Year’s resolutions. However, give it a couple of weeks, and by mid-January their willpower will be waning and those spangly new trainers will probably look, well, just as shiny and perfect. And who will they blame for another failed attempt at getting fit? You probably.

A study by Nuffield Health and the London School of Economics in 2013 found four in ten people blame work for their failure to exercise. A client crisis, looming deadlines, unrealistic expectations of a manager, mounting paperwork, the pressures of a presenteeism culture – the office offers plentiful convenient excuses to skip the gym. The problem is our resulting inactivity is having a devastating effect on our productivity and performance at work. 

A report by the All-Party Commission on Physical Activity released in 2014 set out a convincing case for why employers need to tackle ‘the growing physical inactivity epidemic’ in the UK. The survey behind the report revealed we’re less physically active today than ever in history. And employers are paying the price for this, with 172 million working days a year in the UK lost to absence and the annual economic cost of ill health in lost productivity, lost tax and increased health and welfare totalling a massive £100 billion. 

These rather depressing facts make it clear that helping your people keep up their new year fitness resolutions makes good business sense. Physically active employees are less likely to take sickness leave, less likely to have an accident at work and less likely to suffer from major health problems. This isn’t new information. Knowledge of the economic perils of this so-called inactivity epidemic have driven more and more HR teams across the country to add cycle to work schemes, complimentary health checks and discount gym memberships to their rewards packages over the years. But the mere existence alone of these benefits doesn’t encourage participation in physical activity or tackle the perceived incompatibility of office life and exercise.

But what more can you do? What we actually need to do is reverse trends to make the office environment support rather than hinder exercise goals. 
National workplace health programme, Workplace Challenge, not only believes this is possible but go on to suggest the working week is actually a great time to start clocking up the 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week the Government recommends. And what’s their secret to implementing a successful workplace fitness initiative? Investment in a lavishly equipped office gym? A blanket closure of the lifts to force people to use the stairs? No. It’s all about teamwork apparently. Yes, that old chestnut.

“Whereas it’s surprisingly easy to let ourselves off the hook when we dodge an exercise session, it feels more awkward to let down a colleague,” says Lee Mason from the County Sports Partnership Network, one of the partner organisations behind Workplace Challenge. With this in mind, Workplace Challenge is launching the My Team 2015 campaign, kicking off with an eight-week long challenge running between 5th January and 1st March 2015. Employees are invited to join together with colleagues and compete against rival workplaces by taking part in sports and other physical pursuits during this period and logging any activity on Workplace Challenge’s online activity tracker tool. In return, their efforts will be converted into activity points, which will determine their position compared to other workplaces on a nationwide leaderboard. 

And I can see how this team spirited approach to workplace exercise could be motivating. If we’re honest with ourselves, boredom, floundering willpower, not seeing progress and fear of failure are probably as much to blame for our failure to exercise as work commitments. We just don't like to admit these personal flaws. So by adding a compelling dose of camaraderie and a little peer pressure to workplace health initiatives in the form of lunchtime running clubs, inter-firm five-a-side competitions and canteen based table tennis leagues, you could help your people overcome these obstacles, bolstering employee participation in activity and then reaping the benefits in increased productivity, sharper mental focus and reduced absence rates. 

So what are you waiting for? 2015 could be the year to actually start getting those trainers dirty.