Baby and You

Workplace habits, such as working lunches, can have a major impact on our health. Linia Patel defines the concept of the Corporate Athlete and what we should be eating and doing at work to keep healthy

You spend most of your time at work, so it’s no surprise that your workplace habits have a major impact on your health. Be it eating at your desk to polish off that email or stumbling from one caffeinated cuppa to the next, sooner or later what we munch down on impulse after another hectic day or how much we routinely move in our day catches up with us. What exactly should you be eating and doing at work to keep you performing at your best?

“When under stress, our bodies crave sugary high-fat foods„

Defining a Corporate Athlete

The concept of “Corporate Athlete” was developed by Dr Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in the late nineties. After spending decades working with elite athletes to achieve maximum performance, they began working in more “corporate” settings and found something quite remarkable. They found that the increasing demands the workforce face in their average day are very often more demanding than any professional athlete faces in their career! The good news is they realised that very similar interventions used to get an athlete performing optimally could be applied to any workplace setting to get the same results.

The challenges of the Corporate Athlete

If you’ve ever worked in an office, it’s easy to see why people seem to find workplace nutrition so challenging. Early starts, long commutes, working lunches, vending machines, cafes with limited choice, multiple birthdays, non-health conscious colleagues, deadlines and the rest can sabotage even the best intentions to eat and drink healthily. Interestingly, most people list stress as the number one reason for unhealthy food choices and weight gain. In 2014/15, a UK-based report found that stress accounted for 35% of all work-related ill health cases and 43% of all working days lost due to ill health.

Sometimes stress can be a good thing – pushing you to meet deadlines and be productive. Other times, feeling constantly overwhelmed or anxious can lead to chronic stress which if left untreated, can negatively affect your health. Studies have shown that when under stress, our bodies crave sugary high-fat foods, which are typically the foods that can cause unwanted weight gain. Stressed people also lose sleep, exercise less and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to becoming overweight. Being overweight increases the risk of obesity and other chronic diseases like cardiovascular diseases.

Obesity is strongly associated with sickness absence in the workplace. Up to 10% of sick leave may be attributed to lifestyle behaviours and obesity. Staff absence is important to any business and is estimated to cost UK businesses £29 billion each year, with the average worker taking 6.6 days off each year due to sickness. The productivity loss as a direct cost of cardiovascular disease is £8 billion each per year.

“Just one in five of us take a lunch break„

Performance nutrition

Adequate hydration supports accurate decision-making and helps to prevent reduced concentration levels, fatigue and anxiety. According to researchers, being dehydrated (by as little as 2%) impairs performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor and immediate memory skills. Having consistent energy levels, ability to focus, maintaining stable moods and body weight comes down to blood sugar regulation.

If you frequently eat refined carbohydrate foods, your blood sugar levels may rise rapidly and your body then will produce large amounts of a hormone called insulin. The insulin released rapidly lowers blood glucose levels too far causing an energy dip. The body then perceives this as a stressful situation and secretes adrenaline as a result. Adrenaline is another stress hormone which can break down muscle to get sugar back into the blood. This is a classic way of how you use your stress capacity to manage your blood sugar levels rather than managing the external things in your life that are really stressful.

Learning to manage blood sugar levels by eating the right carbohydrates in the right portions is key to helping you manage your stress resource and maintaining your muscle mass. Establishing good eating patterns and not missing meals also plays a vital role in maintaining good blood glucose control and preventing that 4pm afternoon slump.

The desktop dining debate

Do you break for lunch? Surveys show that just one in five of us take a lunch break at all. The majority (70%) of us eat lunch at our desks. Eating at your desk has been shown to lead to an increased calorie consumption as you’re more likely to graze through the day.

Studies have also shown that employees who regularly take breaks during the workday are likely to be more productive. Physical exercise, even if just a leisurely stroll around the block, reduces stress and appears to have a restorative effect on your brain. And you don’t have to be outside to reap the productivity benefits of a lunchtime stroll, as research demonstrates that even walking around indoors can boost creativity in some by 60%.

Being outside enjoying nature comes with additional brain benefits though. Green spaces like parks have been shown to have a calming effect on our mental activity, reducing stress and fatigue. If you really can’t get out of the office, then invest in a desk plant. One study showed that enriching an office with plants could increase productivity by 15%.

Wellness programmes

Over the past fifteen years, workplace wellness programmes have seemingly taken off. Wellness programmes aim to encourage workers to be healthier. Studies have shown that workplace health interventions may improve productivity by 1-2% through improved resilience and mental and general wellbeing. A review of UK case study examples of employer wellness programmes also found that in 82% of the interventions, workers reported an improvement in overall wellness which also translated into a reduction in sickness absence (with associated positive cost implications) and an increase in productivity.

For more information on work wellness initiatives, refer to the BDA Work

Ready initiative:

References available upon request.

Linia Patel, MSc. Human Nutrition (specialising in Sport Nutrition), BSc. Med Hons. Nutrition & Dietetics and BSc. Biochemistry & Physiology, is a leading dietitian and sports nutritionist with extensive experience in a variety of settings. Her passion is to support people to become their most healthy and high performing selves!

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