Tech workers shun physical activity, study reveals

IT workers in the UK, have the dubious distinction of being the most inactive among various professional groups in the country.

In a recent nationwide survey fewer than one in five tech workers polled met UK government guidelines of exercising for 30-minutes at least five times a week. The survey of 1,734 British workers was conducted by weight loss agency Fat Free Fitness.

In Canada these guidelines are similar.

Canada’s Physical Activity Guide to Healthy Active Living recommends Canadians get at least 60 minutes of light physical activity every day (for example, light walking, easy gardening) to stay healthy or improve health. (However, if the intensity of the activities is increased, less overall time is required).

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“If all Canadians followed current recommendations for physical activity, 33 per cent of all deaths related to coronary heart disease, 25 per cent of deaths related to stroke, 20 per cent of deaths related to type 2 diabetes, and 20 per cent of deaths related to hypertension could be avoided,” says a position statement issued by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada in June 2009.

Among tech workers, inactivity is often compounded by a poor diet, as the UK study indicates.

A mere 14 per cent of tech workers polled said they eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables.

Caffeine consumption of British IT workers is also extremely high. Most said they drank more than 10 cups of coffee a day.

Overall, the survey found 63 per cent of UK residents fail to meet the activity guidelines, with the average person being active for just 90 minutes a week.

While IT professionals are the most inactive, receptionists, salespeople and checkout operators are not far behind.

Not surprisingly bricklayers and construction workers fared the best, topping the survey in terms of intensity and length of activity.

In a Yahoo News UK story, Fat Free Fitness founder Rich Leigh suggests there’s a co-relation between the nature of one’s job and one’s activity levels – and that desk jockeys are likely to be more inactive.

He said though the UK government spent millions last year on health and eating campaigns these initiatives “aren’t talking the language of the times.”

While gyms and health clubs offer corporate discounts and incentives to larger enterprises, he suggested that smaller firms are left out in the cold.

In Canada, some vendors of health and wellness system have sought to address this issue by offering flexible tools that promote workplace wellness in companies of every size.

One of these is the soon-to-be-released M2, a device from MYTRAK Health System Inc., a Mississauga, Ont.-based provider of health and wellness systems, promises to accomplish all that and more.

The device was beta tested by T4G Limited, an IT consulting services firm in Toronto.

Earlier this year, as part of the first corporate pilot of the M², 30 T4G employees were outfitted with the device and used it to track all their physical activity, comparing it against goals set for weight loss or fitness levels.

M² is the mobile version of MYTRAK’s SuccessCoach, a technology that’s used in 4,500 health facilities worldwide.

SuccessCoach attaches directly to exercise equipment and guides users through their workout.

For instance, during strength training, it determines ideal lifting weight, tracks range of motion, establishes proper tempo, and continuously monitors heart rate to calculate appropriate rest time between sets.

“M² is a new evolution of our commercial product,” Reid Hanoun, president and CEO of MYTRAK told “It allows people to get the same engagement and feedback outside fitness clubs — at home, for instance, or in any environment.”

For the folk at T4G, such flexibility is one of the most compelling facets of the mobile device.

It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen on the market,” said Dennis Brink, vice-president, team recruitment at T4G. “It’s aimed at everyone. It can track sedentary people, active people, those in-between … and hopefully improve behaviour.”

Going for Green


M² was designed to be low-maintenance, according to MYTRAK execs.

“Users can maintain their regular lifestyle, do what they normally do, and get the feedback they need, when they need it, all by simply pushing a button,” said Hanoun.

The device, he said, is suitable for those who want to lose weight, become healthy, or just get generally fit. It estimates where the user is relative to these goals and offers feedback through a system of red, yellow or green lights.

“A green light signifies you’re doing what you need to do for the profile that was developed, yellow means you’re getting closer, but need a bit more work, and red indicates you’re falling behind. It’s as simple as that.”

But for the device to work effectively, users first need to key in certain information about themselves on the MYTRAK online community portal.

“After logging on, users answer a sequence of questions that allows us to learn more about them,” Hanoun said. “From there we develop a unique profile tailored to that person, which is downloaded directly to the device.”

Then the device, which remains on the user’s person all day (it’s generally worn at the hip) gathers a bunch of information about the person’s physical condition.

“It looks at how the heart is functioning and relates that to the activity they’re participating in, it looks at energy — how active has the person been, it looks at body balance, the muscles that they’re using.”

Based on all these metrics, Hanoun said, M²’s intelligence engine estimates where the person is relative to their fitness goals, and suggests a program for the next day.

“If they’re meeting their goals and get the green light on all counts, it challenges them, making things much more difficult for them for the next day. If they aren’t meeting their goals, they’re regressed a little, giving them a chance to catch up, and then motivated one more time.”

Users get two rounds of feedback by pressing a button at the centre of the device, noted Ron Warne, director of education and training at MYTRAK, who demoed the device to the pilot group at T4G last week.

“When you push the button the first time you’ll get the calories burned during the course of the day. If the circle is completely green it means you’ve achieved the target; however, if there are additional calories to be burned you’ll see a little red.”

A second push of the button, he said, tells you if you’ve achieved your goals for weight loss, energy levels, and heart rate.

“Green is always good, it means I’ve reached my goals.” After getting this very visual feedback, he said, users replace M2 on their hip, and the device continues to track activity for the rest of the day. Some of that information will be carried forward until the next day.

Prescription for business success

For T4G’s Brink, apart from assisting his firm’s employees meet their health goals there are other payoffs to using the M² device and MYTRAK technologies.

“We believe there’s a big benefit in getting together a team and working on this — it fosters engagement.”

He said the pilot team’s feedback would help improve and optimize the device. “This is the first real-world trial among people not related to MYTRAK. We will talk about any pitfalls or concerns we had using it, areas where it worked, and our whole interaction with the portal.”

He noted that technology savvy folk are on the trial. “We think they will be able to help improve the product and its usage.”

Brink is also convinced use of the device at his company improve employee health — as well as their on the job performance.

A healthier, happier, mentally alert employee is also amore productive employee, he said.

Such a perspective on employee training, however, tends to be more the exception than the rule today among Canadian firms.

Expenditure on staff training represents one of the four main major cost-cutting areas of many Canadian companies today, according to research done by analyst firm Info-Tech Research in London, Ont. (Others are staffing and salary changes, project portfolio management, and vendor and outsourcing management).

Businesses should be extremely wary about cutting or eliminating expenditure on staff training, team-building and such activities, cautioned Info-Tech analyst Robert Garmaise, during a presentation at IT360, a day-long conference and expo held in Toronto in April.

“Attempts to reduce these are fraught with risk” and represent a “low gain, high pain” approach, Garmaise said. “They may save costs a little, but can have a big [negative] impact on the client organization.”

T4G’s Brink believes the reverse is also true — that investing in employee training eventually leads to tangible business benefits.

And this doesn’t just include job-related training, he said, but also non-technical coaching — in an area such health and wellness for instance. At T4G, this is considered “another facet of employee development.”

Brink said moving forward his firm may also investigate other supplementary services to optimize their use of M². (One of these is Life Coach — a MYTRAK service that offers one-on-one support by a professional instructor over the phone or via e-mail).

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