Why employers should promote increased physical activity to improve mental health

During mental health awareness week, commencing 14 May, The Health Insurance Group is encouraging employers to give staff more support with looking after their physical health – in turn having a positive impact on their mental wellbeing.

Link between physical and mental health

It may seem at odds with mental health awareness week to focus on physical activity, but there is a growing body of evidence to support long-held beliefs that mental and physical health are inextricably linked. Research finds that being physically active can reduce someone’s risk of depression by up to 30%, stating that physical activity improves self-perception, self-esteem, mood, and sleep quality, whilst reducing stress, anxiety and fatigue. The National Institute for Health Care Excellence (NICE) is also calling for exercise to be one of the first interventions recommended by doctors when treating mild to moderate depression, highlighting the important link between physical activity and mental wellbeing.

Getting started

NHS guidelines suggest that adults should aim to exercise, at a moderate intensity, for 30 minutes at least five days a week. Yet research found that around a third of adults are exercising less than 30 minutes a week – significantly lower than NHS recommendations. It’s a serious problem, as exercising within the guidelines helps to tackle over 20 chronic conditions including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer. Companies can play an important role in supporting employees with reaching their exercise targets through offering organised exercise groups. Whether establishing lunch-time walking groups or offering after-work yoga classes, businesses can provide a great outlet to support their employees’ mental and physical wellbeing.

What employers can do to help

Company-organised sport and active pursuits not only provide opportunities to become more physically active, but they also have a social element which can be beneficial to mental health – with talking to others and getting out in the fresh air creating notable benefits. And with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, typically being more office based than outdoors, it’s important companies encourage employees to take regular breaks and time away from their desks.

Offering and encouraging the use of health and wellbeing initiatives such as regular health screening can help to identify those at higher risk of conditions, enabling them to make lifestyle changes to reduce the risk. Health screening may be funded via the company or arranged via GPs, indeed cost-effective arrangements such as cash plans can also help meet the cost. Mental health concerns are more likely to be spotted too, enabling organisations to support employees with early interventions.

Brett Hill, managing director, The Health Insurance Group said:

“It’s important to make healthy choices throughout life, and, as we increasingly understand the link between mental and physical health, it is apparent that looking after physical health has a direct effect on mental health, and vice versa. Employers have an opportunity to make a real impact; by encouraging better physical health behaviours they can become the catalyst for better mental health too.

“Employees also must take opportunities offered to them to help maintain a healthy mental and physical wellbeing. Whether it is using employee benefits that include health screening, GP check-ups or online assessments, it’s important they keep on top of their health, and employers play a key role in encouraging this.”