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Staff fitness plan on track for boosting health and raising team spirit

A project that uses an online platform and 'virtual coaches' to track and encourage physical activity is helping nurses in Stockport to take more exercise.
Jan Sinclair

A project that uses an online platform and 'virtual coaches' to track and encourage physical activity is helping nurses in Stockport to take more exercise

Senior public heath nurse Jan Sinclair and her fitness team at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport walked, jogged and ran over 1,000 miles at Easter. It took them nine days to cover a distance equivalent to a return trip from Glasgow to Plymouth, but no one had a day off work.

This was a virtual tour of Britain. Each member of the 31-strong team wore a fitness tracking device and at the end of each day they logged their miles on a team website. They included miles walked at work and other activity, such as a jog after work, a lunchtime stroll or a weekend walk in the country.

Online platform

...

A project that uses an online platform and 'virtual coaches' to track and encourage physical activity is helping nurses in Stockport to take more exercise

Senior public heath nurse Jan Sinclair and her fitness team at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport walked, jogged and ran over 1,000 miles at Easter. It took them nine days to cover a distance equivalent to a return trip from Glasgow to Plymouth, but no one had a day off work.


Jan Sinclair Picture: Neil O'Connor

This was a virtual tour of Britain. Each member of the 31-strong team wore a fitness tracking device and at the end of each day they logged their miles on a team website. They included miles walked at work and other activity, such as a jog after work, a lunchtime stroll or a weekend walk in the country.

Online platform

Along the way, they received tailored advice to help them increase their activity, using an online platform that connects with physical activity trackers. ‘Of course some people added more miles than others, but we all contributed and we completed the challenge,’ says Ms Sinclair.

The team have set themselves a 3,000-mile target for May – equivalent to walking across America – to be achieved within three weeks.

It is part of a ten-month programme aimed at getting 500 NHS and council workers in Stockport up and moving. Ms Sinclair leads the effort at Stockport NHS Foundation Trust.

‘The biggest causes of sickness absence here are stress, musculoskeletal problems and cancer,’ she says. ‘When you look at what we could do to prevent staff being off sick, then physical activity is right up there.’

No gyms or fancy kit

The project is jointly funded by the NHS and the local council in Stockport as well as the council’s not-for-profit leisure services provider, Life Leisure. It began in February and ends in December. The trust will review the effect on reported health and well-being through a staff questionnaire.

Life Leisure chief executive Malcolm McPhail says the platform, called actilife, helps people to become active by joining a community and giving them access to real fitness instructors via the online platform, without the intimidating prospect of gyms, Lycra and expensive kit.

It starts with an online questionnaire. Then anyone with a fitness tracker or a smartphone app that tracks their steps can link to the platform. This includes software to help users see their progress as they become more physically active. Instructors review the activity and send motivational emails and text messages, including invitations to join challenges or teams. This is the ‘virtual coach’, and there is mounting evidence from sports science that this approach works.

The next step

Mr McPhail says: ‘If you sit, actilife will encourage you to stand. If you stand, it will encourage you to walk. If you walk, it will encourage you to jog. If you jog, it will encourage you to run faster.’

At Stepping Hill Hospital, NHS staff have free access to the platform and can even enrol their partners.

‘We are trying to get people active, and to look at their diet,’ says Ms Sinclair, who leads by example and clocks up 15-20km a week running. ‘People say they are busy at work and they are active enough. But this is about being more brisk about your activity, and having a hobby that you do outside work.’

Lunchtime groups

Part of her job is to make sure it is easy for people to become – and stay – active. She has set up lunchtime walking and running groups, Zumba dance fitness and t’ai chi classes, and works with Life Leisure to help NHS workers obtain access to cut-price fitness classes.

Joining a team gives people the motivation to do more while challenging them to compete. Prize draws with shopping vouchers are an incentive for completing challenges. It is also possible to take part as an individual and set personal goals.

‘We have some fantastic teams here,’ says Ms Sinclair. ‘The clinical audit team has nearly every member of staff involved, and the cancer research team now has a weekly lunchtime walking club.’

Non-movers

It is easy to see exercise and physical activity as being about weight loss and disease prevention. But that doesn’t motivate those who are reluctant to exercise. Ms Sinclair says it is time for a new approach to activity that emphasises enjoyment. ‘I look at exercise as a way of doing things together and feeling good,’ she says.

But challenges remain. Some people complain about the cost or accuracy of trackers or say they can’t wear a tracking device on their wrist because of infection control measures. Ms Sinclair suggests wearing it on the ankle instead. The biggest challenge is to motivate those people who do nothing.

‘What we really want is to get sedentary people off their backsides and walking,’ she says. ‘I do think NHS staff need to practise what they preach. The challenge is to motivate those people who are reluctant to get involved. Lots of people do nothing, so the message to them is do something because it is better than doing nothing.’

Impact of NHS staff ill health
  • Staff absence due to poor health costs the NHS about £2.4 billion a year, according Public Health England.
  • This means sickness absence accounts for around £1 in every £40 of the total budget.
  • Nearly half of all NHS staff absence is related to musculoskeletal disorders, and more than a quarter to stress, depression and anxiety.
  • Evidence shows that better staff health and well-being is associated with improved patient outcomes.
  • The NHS Five Year Forward View pledged ‘to ensure the NHS as an employer sets a national example in the support it offers its own staff to stay healthy’.

 


Daloni Carlisle is a freelance health writer

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