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VHA’s Success with Increasing Movement at Work

Posted on by Ebi Awosika, MD, MPH

How can we help keep employees from becoming office potatoes?  It is a fact that a person who leads a sedentary lifestyle (commonly referred to as a couch potato) is at a higher risk of health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and certain cancers, but lately we have been hearing that sitting still for more than four hours a day is an independent risk factor on its own, despite regular exercise (van der Ploe, Chey, et al, 2012).  So, even if you work out for the recommended 30 minutes each day, sitting behind a desk all day still puts you at risk for major health problems. 

In 2008, the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) wellness program, the Employee Health Promotion/Disease Prevention program (later the Employee Health Promotion/ Disease and Impairment Prevention Program), began by designing a program that focuses on healthy eating, physical activity, stress management and tobacco cessation.   All of these activities were integrated into the workplace.

The early stages of the program involved: 

  • Creating an employee wellness community  focused on employees  helping each other improve their health. 
  • Training employee wellness coaches in the fundamentals of health promotion, coaching and the use of motivational interviewing to help change behavior.
  • Educating employees on a variety of health related topics.  


To increase opportunities for employees to add physical activity to their work days, VHA took a multi-pronged approach. Funding was provided for fitness centers, bike lockers, walking tunnels, walking paths and stairwells to provide easy access to safe, popular activities. Information about how to set up walking clubs and bike clubs was provided.  Fitballs and fitball chairs were used to replace regular office chairs, along with guidelines on how to use them. Walking workstations were placed in departments where several employees could share them (see photo above).  These devices, essentially treadmills with desks, computers and phones attached, allow staff to walk at a slow pace (1-2 miles per hour) and work at the same time. Wellness coaches were encouraged to become peer fitness leaders for employees. The employees were provided exercise DVD’s as well as a series of illustrated exercise handouts.  Exercise instruction included yoga, zumba, conditioning, and strengthening routines.  Employees received accelerometers to discourage sitting still. Unlike pedometers, accelerometers measure vertical acceleration and some vibrate when the user has been still for a period of time. Some have a color component, changing colors as the user engages in more physical activity through the day.

The VA2K (a 2 kilometer fitness walk) was created as an annual event to encourage healthy, non-competitive activity for employees while benefiting homeless Veterans through donations. In its second year, 171 locations in the Department of Veterans Affairs  participated in the VA2K on May 16th, 2012 – over 23,000 employees walked and over $242,000 in goods were collected for homeless Veterans. Preliminary evaluations show that these efforts are paying off in a trimmer, healthier VHA workforce. Their tobacco cessation program has a 20% quit rate and their weight management program has an average 5 lb weight loss and 2 inch reduction in abdominal girth over 12 weeks.

The VHA recognized the need to assist facilities in the development of standardized, effective employee health promotion services. Based on the success of the program they worked with a multidisciplinary task force to develop The Employee Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Guidebook. The aim of this guidebook is to provide health care professionals with information and references appropriate for establishing and expanding programs at individual facilities.

Healthy Federal Workers 2012 logoThe National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and VHA have long-standing relationships as intra-Federal government partners, collaborators, and advocates for healthier workers.  On September 18 – 21, NIOSH, the Department of Veterans Affairs and other Federal agencies will be sponsoring the Healthier Federal Workers 2012 Symposium in Washington, D.C.  VHA will be leading a health coaching certificate program during the pre-conference. They will also be sharing their proven and promising practices for a healthier and safer workforce during one of the conference sessions.

We would like to hear from you.  Share with us your successes in improving the health of your workforce. What are some of your challenges?

Ebi Awosika, MD, MPH

Dr. Awosika is Director of the VHA Employee Health Promotion Disease and Impairment Prevention Program

Posted on by Ebi Awosika, MD, MPH

27 comments on “VHA’s Success with Increasing Movement at Work”

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    Will any injuries sustained during these activities be covered by workers compensation?

    Thank you,
    Margaret Griffith MD MPH
    Occupational Medicine

    • There is strong consensus that the health benefits of these programs outweigh any increased risk of injury.
    • Within Federal programs, our personal experience has been that injury/illness rates related to voluntary participation in workplace wellness, fitness and health promotion activities have been very low and any adverse incidents have been rare. An employee always has the right to file a claim. The determination of workers comp coverage is done by the Department of Labor.
    • Workers compensation laws are state-based for the most part and therefore vary widely from state to state on this topic so it is best to check with your own authorities and obtain local legal advice if necessary.
    • Some states allow employers to obtain waivers from workers compensation liability for their employee’s participation in voluntary fitness/recreational activities. See for example:

    I purchased my own tread desk and have been using it at work. It has resolved my pain from sitting loing hours at a computer. I do not have the lower back pain or carpal tunnel symptoms that I had before using the tread desk. My employer, a large public agency in CA, now says that the risk of a workers compensation claim means I must remove the tread desk. I am wondering if there has been any increase in worker’s comp claims as a result of tread desks? Ihave offered to sign a waiver but they say that is not possible. I feel better than I have in years and have never made any worker’s comp claims. I am looking for information to persuade my employer that a tread desk does not present any significant risk to me and that the health benefits outweigh the risk. Any assistance would be welcome. Thank you.

    We have not had any injuries related to the use of the walking workstations during the pilot program at the VA and we do have employees who use the walking workstations for up to 16-20 miles a week. I am not aware of any data or research regarding injuries with the use of walking workstations and would invite readers to share their experiences, anecdotes, and data on the blog.

    We encourage employers to proactively develop standards, protocol and guidelines for the use of walking work-stations. Someone from a company’s safety team should evaluate the work-station, its surroundings and control measures to assure injury and illness risks are minimized. As we mentioned in our response to comment 1, which asked about workers compensation, there is growing consensus that the health benefits of these programs outweigh any increased risk of injury.

    My company in Waterloo Iowa has been doing everything they can to push employees to be active throughout the day. They push us to go for a 5 minute walk every hour to relieve back tension. Also, they highly recommend that we get a gym membership. I even started to get chronic back pain after sitting for an extended period of time at work and my employer purchased me a (name removed) medical back brace from a local company called (name removed). I was soooo thankful they helped me out with that otherwise I would have been dealing with the pain with tylenol and ice packs. Anyways it is my belief that they need to do more at more employers to help them stay physically and mentally healthier for longer periods of time.

    In our office we are not allowed to eat at our desks, the management have decided that it is not healthy for us to do so. We also have a “walking lunch” scheme that encourages our staff to get out and do a 30 minute brisk walk twice a week along different routes around the city – its great fun and you don’t really notice you are exercising. We also backed the love food hate waste campaign a few months ago, where we were educated in the health and safety of food and how we can reduce waste –

    very nice idea to To increase opportunities for employees to add physical activity,that will gives them a motivation to make a great job and never feel borring of work , specialy for women,

    having a desk job, I think really need some physical exercises or my brain would not function. there are many benefits to physical activities so why not incorporate it to our daily activities.:
    reduce your risk of a heart attack.
    manage your weight better.
    have a lower blood cholesterol level.
    lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
    have lower blood pressure.
    have stronger bones, muscles and joints and lower the risk of osteoporosis.

    Nice idea, it also increases the opportunities to employees to add physical activity
    Thank you Ebi,

    nice ideas but not something we all at [company name removed] can do while working in the city collecting junk from commercial and residential properties.

    In our workplace we are not allowed to eat at our workdesks, the administration have chosen that it is not healthy for us to do so. We additionally have a “strolling lunch time” scheme that motivates our personnel to obtain out and do a Thirty Minutes brisk stroll two times a week along different routes around the city– its excellent enjoyable and you do not actually discover you are exercising. We likewise supported the love food hate waste project a couple of months ago, where we were educated in the health and safety of meals and exactly how we could lessen waste

    Thanks for the article. I’m glad steps are taken to tackle this problem. I believe this has a much larger contribution to health care issues than we think. Especially with longer hours being worked.

    Look for a treadmill desk that offers a commercial grade treadmill that has a maximum speed of approximately 2mph with no incline adjustability and is quiet with a safety clip. The table should have an adjustable height with a soft edge and built in wrist rest. There should be an ability to accommodate adjustable monitor arms and work tools.

    Have a look at your surrounding world and you can easily find so many people out there who have become more conscious about their health. These people have a common notion and that is to lose weight so that a better health can be achieved.

    Is a normal problem see people that forget the diet when is stressed by the work, the thing like the commented in this post gain importance for the health of the people

    It prooves the importance of exercise to fight against different illness. Where I work we train people with diabetes, cancer… This is an awesome and powerful tool for these people.

    It prooves the importance of exercise to fight against different illness. Where I work we train people with diabetes, cancer… This is an awesome and powerful tool for these people.

    I have had a standing workstation for about 10 years. I received approval from my immediate supervisor to purchase an under desk treadmill. I purchased the treadmill with my own funds and walked 1mph while charting on my computer. In my mind, this was not exercise but a way to stay mentally focused. 6 months later, the safety committee sent a notification to me asking me to remove the treadmill due to safety concerns and electrical costs.

    That’s great these topics are finally being addressed.
    I was a computer science programmer in the past and my health really became depleted, my eyes were always very inflamed, constant back pains, several signs of stress…
    A stable yoga and meditation practice and a different diet changed my quality of life.
    I was so inspired with such a huge change in my life that I wanted to share with others, I now run yoga & wellness retreats in Tuscany, Italy;

    It’s great to see this topic. Benefits of exercise are proven, but the companies aren’t allowing his employees to have the time to do it.

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