by Karlie Intlekofer, PhD, with Treo Wellness

Workplace wellness often prioritizes mental health, yet physical well-being is equally vital. Our daily movements impact mood, productivity, and overall work satisfaction. However, the significance lies not only in the amount of total daily movement, but also in movement timing, as prolonged sitting has emerged as a concerning occupational hazard.

Although office workers may experience fewer severe musculoskeletal issues than those in physically demanding roles, research is increasing our awareness of the negative impact of prolonged sitting. Based on accumulating evidence, incorporating short movement breaks is crucial to energize the workforce and promote holistic workplace wellness.

Managing Muscle Fatigue

Sitting may seem harmless at first, but over time, it causes discomfort. Some of the most common musculoskeletal complaints among desk workers include neck pain, shoulder pain, and lower back pain. In studies that assessed differences in muscle gene expression, movement breaks reliably increase the expression of genes important for carbohydrate metabolism (Latouche et al., 2013). Reflecting increased metabolic demands, sugars enter working muscles from the bloodstream, even with movement sessions lasting only a few minutes. In line with this idea, related studies show that regular activity breaks reduce insulin needs throughout the day compared to prolonged sitting or standing (Peddie et al., 2021).

In addition to benefits for blood sugar management, research on muscle activity patterns suggests that by forty minutes of prolonged sitting, several back and neck muscles show clear signs of fatigue (Ding et al., 2020). Short walking and stretching sessions restore these muscles by interrupting their sustained activation and preventing musculoskeletal discomfort. To encourage movement breaks, reminders can emphasize how these breaks can help us feel more refreshed by giving our postural muscles a break.

Hypertensive Responses

While seated work may seem less physically demanding than manual labor jobs, the impact on the cardiovascular system tells a different story. Hypertension, a leading risk factor for heart disease, affects almost half of all working adults in the United States (Chobufo et al., 2019). It may come as a surprise to many that prolonged sitting raises blood pressure (Adams et al., 2024). It’s important to communicate the importance of regular movement breaks with light exercise to counteract this harmful effect.

Circulation and Cognitive Resilience

When seated, the circulatory system slows in ways that are not only reflected in the legs, but also the brain. The outcome of slow blood flow is a brain that is more susceptible to distractions and fatigue. Breaking up prolonged sitting with two to ten minutes of walking or stretching can reverse this outcome, improving comfort and executive function (Benzo et al., 2018; Chrismas et al., 2019). Considering the crucial role of cognitive function in work performance, promoting regular movement breaks for their ability to enhance focus and follow-through can encourage their adoption.

Options For Encouragement

To promote movement breaks in the workplace, several strategies can be employed.

One approach is to implement mandatory work pauses to help employees integrate movement into their routines (Juul-Kristensen et al., 2004). However, this method may disrupt tasks and be inconvenient for some employees.

Another option is to use passive prompts, such as notifications or reminders, to encourage movement breaks. Research has shown that these prompts can effectively increase daily calorie expenditure and are well-received by employees when not overly intrusive (Pedersen, Cooley & Mainsbridge, 2014). Additionally, employers can educate employees about the benefits of movement breaks, as many office-based employees are unaware of the negative health effects of prolonged sitting (Flint et al., 2017). Finally, providing opportunities for employees to naturally incorporate movement breaks into their day, such as during task transitions, can empower them to take control of their activity levels while respecting their autonomy.

In the last decade, many wellness initiatives have been featuring on-demand digital options to facilitate and encourage employees’ adoption of movement breaks, making them a seamless and beneficial part of the workday. These approaches can help ensure that movement breaks can be successfully integrated into employee routines for maximum benefit.

Dr. Karlie Intlekofer is the co-founder of Treo Wellness and is dedicated to helping others discover their healthier lifestyle. She earned her doctorate in Neuroscience & Behavior and is a published researcher in the fields of exercise science, dementia, healthy habits, and endocrinology.


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