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Save the Sedentary Employee: Add "Fit to Work" Training to Worksite Wellness Programs

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Don recommends that another element be added to both employment screening and on the job programs to protect sedentary workers.


Physically-challenging jobs go to applicants judged able to meet the demands of such positions. Few organizations would ignore screenings to ensure that new hires have the capacity for lines of work that require strength and agility. Yet, a significant number of applicants (and those already in the work force) are at risk precisely because they are not prepared for the daunting physical challenges of their work. I refer to those whose functions are largely sedentary in nature. Sitting for long hours, day after day over long time periods is more challenging and conducive to injuries than you might have realized.

Regardless of what job they do, whether it involves demanding physical work or just sitting, people need to be fit and mentally sharp (healthy). It may bugger the imagination and strain credulity, but the reality is that most worker compensation claims are filed by employees who spend the workday parked on their posteriors.

This seems counter-intuitive: How could it be that a comparable level of injuries are visited upon the sedentary as on those who do genuine physical labor throughout the workday? The reason is that sedentary folks are at the lowest level of aerobic fitness. They are deficient in strength, balance, endurance and/or flexibility.

By failing to provide employees with effective education, encouragement and support regarding age-appropriate fitness and effective thinking skills or mental agility, companies take on greater risks than necessary. These risks are easily avoided with a little of the same kind of effort expanded on the other screening and training initiatives described above.

Doing so makes plain, good economic sense for everyone, employees and employers alike. One incontrovertible foundation of a well motivated, productive workforce is a healthy workplace environment where positive outlooks and behaviors are valued and sustained.

Good health beyond the passive level of disease avoidance is not possible without daily attention and commitment to a basic level of physical fitness. In Western cultures, unfortunately, the hope that an employee will become and remain fit for work is a leap of faith and a big ask. The cultural norms at home and work do not reinforce lifestyles that enable either the physical or the mental demands of work, whether that work is physical or otherwise. (Especially “otherwise,” that is, sedentary.)


According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest report, “Workers by Occupational Categories,” the blue collar/white collar divide in America is 61 versus 39 percent, respectively.  (Sources: Urban Institute and Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured estimates based on the Census Bureau's March 2011 and 2012 Current Population Survey). Other Western nations have comparable splits between those likely to be somewhat active doing their jobs (i.e., the blue collar segment) than the rest of the work force. That 39 percent group in America, assuming they are not properly prepared physically and mentally for sedentary work, are at risk. When employees are at risk, the bottom line of employer organizations are at risk, as well.

Both pre-employment and on the job training are needed for all positions, but particularly for those whose duties lead them desk bound. These are the workers generally unaware of how close they are, at all times, to sudden injuries, often with no apparent incident. Instead, the sedentary are as often as not afflicted when bending over, turning or lifting an unsuspecting simple object.

The unfortunate fact is that employers underestimate the value of continuing education and physical training for sedentary positions. Expanded screenings for fitness and training for all employees for the innocent rigors of sedentary work would contribute to optimal performance and injury mitigation.

Fit to Work

A wellness program should include fitness development. All workers need greater opportunities to build essential strengths, gain minimal levels of flexibility and exercise muscles, joints and tendons for agility and adaptation to simple work loads and human movements.

Extended periods of sitting, or standing, can if not countered with opposing activity, result in aches, pains, tears, pulls and other dislocations that will prove costly both for worker and employer. To ignore the lurking hazards of too little regular movement of specific kinds is hazardous and inconsistent with sound management. It is analogous to overlooking the forest due to fixation on the proverbial trees.

Regardless of what job they do, whether it involves demanding physical work or sitting down, people need to be physically fit. Whilst it might be hard to believe, most workers compensation claims are filed by people who work sitting down. In fact you'd have to scratch your head to wonder how someone could injure themselves sitting down.

A wellness program is an excellent first step, but few such offerings attract all eligible workers, nor do they necessarily entail activities that prepare sedentary workers for the challenges of sitting on their arses all day. A good fitness training program should be targeted to the three common body system dysfunctions - metabolic, musculoskeletal and psychological. The first two are obviously physical and easiest to recognize, treat and thus prevent recurrences; the third is mental. The latter is more challenging in several ways but the epidemic of depression is, to a degree, exercise related.  

It makes plain economic sense for all corporate parties - shareholders, employers and employees - to study and apply best strategies for keep everyone, including those with seemingly injury-proof jobs with little or no demand loads, to work themselves into good physical condition. Doing so must be recognized as one of the foundations of a happy, productive  workforce.

The case for attending to the fitness of the sedentary as well as the physically work force comes down to this: In modern society, it's a big ask for any human to expect to stay healthy without keeping fit.

Elements of Fitness for Sedentary Work

Would you be surprised to discover that most of the sedentary workers in any given organization cannot do a situp, a squat down, a pushup, a pullup or, for that matter, touch their toes without bending knees? It’s probably true. No, very few have any need to do to any of these things to perform their jobs, but the fact that they can’t means the time will come, sooner than later, that they can’t do their jobs, either. At least not till their aching “bad” back, sore neck, injured shoulder, etc. has had time to heal.

Of course you may have noticed that most folks appear to be a bit stocky, portly, a little plump in the middle or wide in the gluteus, over weight or just plain obese. These are more than bad bodily fashion statements. These are homo sapiens in the neuromuscular coal mine. Getting out fast is not an option but getting fit at a good, sensible and not overly demanding pace, wisely and efficiently, is.

These tell-tale work force warning signs, if ignored, have consequences. Here is a sampling of what to expect:

  • A medical bill of $40 grand to fix a knee incurred by the same fellow who had already had a payout for his knee dysfunction from a previous employer. A simple fitness test prior during pre-employment screening would have identified this dysfunction, even if he didn't let on about this aspect of his medical history. Such might not have disqualified the applicant but the terms of engagement (e.g., the provision of a core fitness program) might have been modified.
  • A medical bill of $40 grand to fix a knee incurred by the same fellow who had already had a payout for his knee dysfunction from a previous employer. A simple fitness test prior during pre-employment screening would have identified this dysfunction, even if he didn't let on about this aspect of his medical history. Such might not have disqualified the applicant but the terms of engagement (e.g., the provision of a core fitness program) might have been modified.
  • A secretary herniated a disc cleaning her desk. Her boss did the same thing a month earlier swiveling round to pick up a newspaper.

The statistics from HRA departments of employees undergoing hospital-based rehab for 'injuries' incurred sitting in chairs, tapping keyboards and standing up after lengthy phone calls are legion. You would think the office was a war zone for which employees would earn hazardous pay bonuses. The latest incident I heard of involves a person who herniated a disc bending down to pick up a leaf off the grass. That workers compensation applies to such incidents is folly. Sedentary workers need a minimum of strength,flexibility and aerobic fitness to do their jobs without breaking down. Everyone needs a basic level of fitness at every stage of life.

Everyone needs a self-administered strength and flexibility routine, which should be based on evidence-based exercise science knowledge. The human body adapts to demands placed upon it gradually and wisely; everyone should be able to effortlessly perform 20 situps, squat downs and pushups, (delete pullups only 1% of people can do a pullup) touch their toes with knees extended, sit up straight on the floor with legs crossed and other elementary physical  routines of strength and flexibility.

Over time, muscles in a sedentary person become weak and tight. Bones move out of alignment; the slightest incident and the unsuspecting worker is being sucked into a medical black hole. Work expected of a seemingly normally well person will prove too much if that person normal health is in fact illusory.

The existing mentality for sedentary workers is something like this: Employee goes to work, employee suffers lower back pain doing her job, ergo the work must have caused it.' This is another  example of the post hoc, ergo prompter hoc fallacy (i.e., if A occurs before B, then A must have caused B).  

Naive employers and “why ask questions or fix the problem” insurers accept the doctor's diagnosis, arrived at without ever having assessed the employees fitness for work. Then it's off for x-rays, medications, probing, rubbing, crunching, heating and vibrating. Unfortunately, the personally generated musculoskeletal dysfunctions did not come about and won’t recur due to insufficient amounts of x-rays, medications, probing, rubbing, crunching, heating and vibrating.

What would a company strategy for helping sedentary workers become fit for work look like. Suppose organizations were to offer protocols that led to a badge or certificate attesting to a person’s fit to work status. What would such a merit achievement entail?

There are few models but I have been through one and it’s impressive. Unfortunately for American companies, it’s in Australia but that’s a good thing for the Aussie corporate world. It is headquartered in Canberra and offers a wide range of books, profiles, seminars, corporate consultations, videos and other materials that can be used worldwide, even without hands-on assistance from the Downunder specialists.

For information about fit for work, both physical and mental, contact John Miller. at the address below or any of these links.

John Miller, Managing Director
Miller Health Pty Ltd
(0424) 391 749
E-mail -
Phone - (02) 6288 7703

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