Physical activity for mental wellbeing: A brain break toolkit for workplaces

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Physical activity for mental wellbeing

A brain break toolkit for workplaces

Powered by NowWeMOVE and No Elevators Day

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or European Health and Digital Executive Agency (HADEA). Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

Table of Contents

About the toolkit / 3

Our approach / 4

Introductory “pep talk” / 5

The great modern paradox / 6

The problem in short / 7

The problem in more detail / 8

The opportunities / 9

The solution / 10

The benefits / 11

7 steps / 12

1. Talk / 13

2. Pause & MOVE / 15

3. Work & MOVE / 19

4. MOVE to work / 20

5. Find your MOVE / 21

6. Join other MOVEments / 23

7. Stick at it / 25

Beyond “exercise is medicine” / 29

Credits / 30

Resources and references / 31


About the toolkit

This toolkit is part of a series of resources and online learning materials we have produced with support from an EU Operating Grant in the field of Health.

Learn more

A peer-to-peer guide to leading mood-boosting breaks at work.

Picture yourself as an activator or MOVE Agent. You could work in any type of setting for any type of organisation. You have heard that physical activity can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing and want to know more. Most of all, you care and you want to act. So how do you start and how do you introduce this sensitive topic to your manager and colleagues?

This toolkit is our peer-to-peer guide for those who want to take the lead. It is your conversation-starter and idea-generator of simple actions that can boost staff energy, mood and productivity. Armed with this powerful resource, you will contribute to creating workplaces that nurture rather than deplete people’s mental health.

On the following pages we present the problem, explain why it’s everyone’s problem and why it’s ok for us to talk about it – and how. We present the evidence that our brains and bodies need active breaks from sedentary work and show what these breaks could look like. Plus, we present case examples from successful organisations and workplace activation events like No Elevators Day.

Easy, tiger! Before you start…

Before you shout to your colleagues “hit the floor and give me 30 push-ups!”, check our tips about introducing activities, helping people find the MOVEs that they’re comfortable doing and getting the approach and timing right. We know that we all have limits when it comes to our (and others’) mental and physical health, so we also point to further resources and when it’s best to seek professional advice.

Expert input and support

At the International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA), we are not trained experts in mental health, but we do know a thing or two about how physical activity benefits our overall health and wellbeing. And we are lucky to be able to spend time with mental health experts through our projects and broader network. So we’re very grateful for the input and feedback we received on this toolkit from our Danish member DGI’s consultants Lone Brink Rasmussen and Hanna Christensen, and Stine Dragsbæk from our European Week of Sport Denmark partner the Danish Company Sport Association (Dansk Firmaidræts Forbund), who have taught us valuable insights from their work with initiatives such as Act-Belong-Commit (ABC for Mental Health) and workplace activation.


Our approach

Shining light on a serious subject.

Our approach to this toolkit is to keep the tone light and fun – even though this is clearly a serious subject – because we’re all in it together to create healthy environments that support mental and physical wellbeing.

Our emphasis is on promoting (micro-)actions that anyone can do in everyday work settings. We want to encourage a health promotion mindset at workplaces that not only cares about preventing people from getting ill, but fosters environments that are enjoyable to work in and, in turn, keep staff in good health.

So why not take a warm, gentle, fun, empathetic and commonsense touch? It could be contagious…

Enjoy the journey and we hope it will help you:

• Raise awareness in your workplace and present the evidence

• Engage with your leadership and colleagues effectively on the topic

• Appoint physical activity ambassadors in your organisation if you are a leader

• Introduce non-intrusive and fun activities in your workplace

• Encourage active transport to and from work

• Have fun while being a #HealthyLifestyle4All ambassador yourself!

“Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.”

Introductory “pep talk”

Throughout our lifetime, we spend hours at our workplace, dedicating our brilliant minds to creating master plans and providing wicked solutions to hardcore challenges! So why is it that when our work relies so much on our brains to come up with genius ideas and solve world problems, we generally do very little to ensure that our minds have the best conditions to thrive and function whilst performing?

We are facing a growing pandemic of poor mental health amongst the workforce that infiltrates workplaces like never before and thrives on hard-working, dedicated people. It’s hard to predict who will be influenced by this pandemic, but many will do so given the current trajectory, which really is the argument for why we should all care more about how to avoid it.

The good news is we can avoid it! And just like poor mental health can spread, thriving mental health is contagious to its surroundings too. All we need is to find fierce workplace rebels like you, who are eager and ready to create work

environments that promote and protect our mental health for the sake of our wellbeing and help us perform better – it’s really a win-win for you and your workplace – and we simply think you, your colleagues and your brilliant minds deserve that!

Now, before you go “This sounds like a lot of effort”, let us assure you. It is not! It is the opposite. Being a mental health advocate is all about prioritising the micro-actions that make our work days a little better. It’s the minibreaks that provide our minds with a bit of rest, some small talk with our colleagues and everything in between. The important thing is that you make the choice to prioritise what makes you happy and gives you energy – and stick to it!

Happy read everyone.


The great modern paradox

Exercise gives us a complete body BOOST – so why don’t we move more?

Being active has countless benefits for our physical health. It not only keeps our body fit, it also helps to prevent the onset of non-communicable diseases that threaten our longevity. In short, active bodies are healthy ones that live longer.

But what about our brain?

It is, of course, connected to our body – but it perhaps hasn’t received as much attention as our heart, muscles or other parts of our body when we talk about exercise. Luckily, this is an oversight that the world is catching up on, particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the growing prevalence and consequences of poor mental health and wellbeing that can also threaten our longevity. On the flipside, there is growing evidence that when exercise invigorates our bodies and makes them feel better, it also has a positive effect on our brains. Just add positive social experiences to exercise and you have the perfect recipe for a complete body BOOST.

Then we work – and sit – for much of the week.

Ah, that notorious ‘exercise – work – sedentary activity’ imbalance. It catches us out every time. The WHO’s first ‘Guidelines on mental health at work’ points out that 60% of the global population is in work, and the latest Eurobarometer notes that white collar (office) workers are more than three times as likely as manual workers to sit for up to 8-and-a-half hours every day.


The good news is that many workplaces are waking up to this great modern paradox and are squeezing more active breaks into the average work day! But many more are not. Let’s find out how to get more workplaces moving!


The problem in short 2 minutes of guilt-free doomscrolling*

Employed adults are moving less – and they’re increasingly struggling with their mental health and wellbeing. A global pandemic, hybrid or online work and lack of contact with colleagues have all presented enormous challenges to office workers and their mental and physical wellbeing. Here’s a recap of some of the scariest ‘news headlines’ for organisations and businesses since 2020.


Covid-19 has made the existing mental health crisis worse

(Source: Mind, Edge Hill University, Loughborough University, January 2022)

44.6% of the total employed population aged 15-64 report mental wellbeing risks at work

(Source: Eurostat, September 2021)

Nearly half of all employees report symptoms of burnout

(Source: McKinsey Quarterly, 2022)

Pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide

(Source: World Health Organization, March 2022)

63% of office workers feel less engaged with their team postlockdown

(Source: Institute for Employment Studies, May 2022)

Access to protective factors such as social connection, physical exercise and daily routine fell dramatically

(Source: OECD Legal Instruments, May 2021)

* Doomscrolling: A compelling urge to scroll through bad and distressing news headlines on mobile phones and other devices


The problem in more detail

And why it’s ok to talk about it

The topic of mental health and wellbeing can be a daunting one for companies, organisations and physical activity promoters to tackle. Employees might find it difficult to speak up about poor mental wellbeing in the workplace for fear of stigma and professional consequences. Management may not feel qualified to respond to concerns, confuse mental health with mental illness or simply avoid the subject all together.

What about physical activity promoters? For many years they have comfortably linked their work to the variety of physical benefits that exercise, sport, active transport and recreational movement can bring. Now there is growing evidence that physical activity can help boost people’s moods, concentration and psychosocial wellbeing.

But I’m not a doctor! Is mental health really my problem?

Of course, there are many risks to mental health and wellbeing that are beyond our control:

• Medical diagnoses, grief and trauma or other adverse personal factors

• Global or societal factors such as economic crises, war, poverty and pandemics

Naturally, we can’t substitute professional medical advice to treat severe symptoms and diagnoses of mental illness. But we can contribute to creating healthier working environments that help people thrive and enjoy better wellbeing.

Organisational structures and work environments are equally complex elements to change overnight. Several of the mental wellbeing risk factors listed in a recent Eurostat survey (2020) are difficult (or impossible) for the average employee to overcome by themselves: e.g. work overload, job (in)security, or difficult customers, clients or colleagues.

But workplaces are becoming more attentive to employee mental health and it is becoming less taboo to talk about the topic. So this is a good indication that we can influence our work environments more than we might have a decade ago. Our

collective experience of adverse global events has also brought mental health to the fore. One of the important outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it put millions of people in the same boat and made it ok to admit that:

• My mental wellbeing is suffering at this time

• My physical wellbeing is suffering at this time

And acknowledge some of the reasons why:

Illness and grief

Disturbance to routines (work, school and pastimes)

Fear Restricted movement (geographical and physical)

Uncertainty Physical/social distancing


Job loss and financial strain

It also helped connect the dots between restricted movement, isolation and social distancing, recovery from illness and mental wellbeing. If we look at the patterns even closer, it may look like more of our problem than we think…


The opportunities

Can we overcome the biggest risk to our wellbeing at work?

Now, we’re not scientists, but let’s look at an interesting pattern that might help convince ourselves, our colleagues, and especially our management, that it could partly be “our problem” and we can do something collectively to improve and protect our mental health in the workplace.

Before the pandemic, modern work environments were already putting our minds and bodies under strain. “Time pressure or overload of work” was reported as the top risk factor for mental wellbeing in the OECD’s 2020 survey and “lack of influence over the work pace” was in fifth place. Both of these risk factors lead to one particular risk factor for physical and mental health: many, many hours of sitting still.

An Australian study put some numbers on the proportion of hours adults spend sitting at work: “Sedentary time accounted for 81.8% of work hours (light activity 15.3% and MVPA* 2.9%), which was significantly greater than sedentary time during non-work time (68.9%) … Further, office workers had fewer breaks in sedentary time during work hours compared to non-work time” (Parry & Straker, 2013).

If we compare these statistics to the 2022 Eurobarometer survey on sport and physical activity, a clear pattern emerges. “Lack of time” was reported as the “principal barrier” preventing the average adult from being active (41% of respondents). In addition, most physical activity takes place in informal settings, such as parks and outdoors (47%) or at home (37%) or during the journey between home and work, school or shops (24%). Still, 13% of Europeans do not walk for 10 minutes at a time at all during the week, and 11% sit for more than 8.5 hours per day. “These figures emphasise the crucial role that other actors can play: employers, for example, can help address sedentary behaviour at the workplace.”


To convince decision makers why they should nurture their employees’ mental wellbeing, drop some facts and figures like they’re hot –because they’re burning hot.

And the domino effect continues, according to the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (2019): “Researchers found that sleep problems, a lack of energy, and physical inactivity may lead to a depressed mood and mood changes. The findings reverse conventional wisdom that depression leads to physical inactivity and show that the opposite may be true.”

* MVPA = moderate-to-vigorous physical activity


The solution

Why did we highlight all those blue bits?

Here’s why – it helps us find some opportunities that are right in front of us.

The solution: Extended haiku poem walk for 10 minutes at a time during the journey between home and work employers, for example, can help address sedentary behaviour at the workplace breaks in sedentary time during work hours physical activity in informal settings (or) outdoors

Your first team-building activity on the topic could be to make your own poem out of these words of wisdom – in a standing meeting of course! Feel free to add more active ideas! And stick your final masterpiece on the wall as a reminder to MOVE.


The benefits

Physical activity costs nothing, but it can deliver big rewards

The good news is that physical activity does not need to cost employers much – in fact, it does not need to cost them anything at all. Regular active breaks can even boost productivity, as they give employees a boost in oxygen, heart rate and serotonin if they move at a moderate to vigorous intensity, by refreshing the mind and the body. Physical activity can help combat deteriorating moods, mild stress, and fatigue from sitting.

The WHO’s latest Guidelines on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour and Every Move Counts campaign acknowledge the connection between physical activity and improved mental wellbeing, cognition and performance, underlining that “physical activity [is] associated with reduced symptoms of anxiety and reduced symptoms of depression” (WHO, 2020).

The facts and figures packed into Danish Company Sport’s two-pager ‘Exercise for employees pays off” (Kollegamotion betaler sig) give even more concrete evidence of benefits and returns on investment when organisations allow time for active breaks or subsidise recreational physical activity.

“Your co-workers are your most precious value. If you want to keep them, and keep them happy and doing their best, just give them this time. It’s possible to find 15 minutes or even 1-2 hours in a work week because it benefits the company’s results in the end.”

House of Code COO, #BeActive Workplace Award Winner in 2020

Short to long workouts of varying intensity pay off

Workout duration and example profession

6-minute strength training breaks for dental assistants

5x10-minute group-based exercises per week during work hours for nurses

1 hour per week of high intensity physical activity plus 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per day for office workers

Health promotion schemes in general


• Reduced neck and shoulder pain

• Improved teamwork

• Reduced neck, lower back and foot pain


Fredslund & Sjøgaard, 2014

Jakobsen et al., 2018

• Increased productivity by 6% over 1 year

• Reduced sick leave absence rates by 29%

• A return on investment of 36 euro cents for every 13 cents spent on physical activity initiatives

• Annual return on investment of between 33 and 66 euro cents per 13 cents spent from reduced sick leave, increased productivity and workplace morale; plus improved quality of output and collaboration.

Main source: Dansk Firmaidræt (translated extracts from Danish; currency converted from DKK to €)

Dalager et al., 2017

Justesen et al. 2017

Kreis & Bödeker, 2003

Can you find better arguments to introduce a bit of physical activity to the workplace? If we want to protect and promote our co-workers’ mental wellbeing, we should be firing up our offices with some exercise sessions.


7 steps

What you can do to improve workplace wellbeing

Start here...

What types of actions are within the reach of employers, employees and physical activity promoters when it comes to mental wellbeing? Let’s take a look at the options step-by-step.

1. Talk. Start the conversation about mental and physical wellbeing at the workplace

1 2

2. Pause & MOVE.

Make guilt- and consequencefree time for active breaks

3 4

3. Work & MOVE.

Integrate physical activity into some work activities

4. MOVE to work.

Encourage walking or biking to work or active parts of the route if the commute is long

5. FindYourMOVE.

Allow employees the flexibility to find the move that moves them; play with non-intrusive activity ideas

6. Join other MOVEments. Days, events or campaigns that promote physical activity and mental health awareness

7. Stick at it.

Encourage peer-to-peer support and appoint motivators or ambassadors to keep the ball rolling 5 6 7

Start the conversation about mental and physical wellbeing.

Whether you’re an employee, manager or physical activity promoter, you’ll want to use a gentle touch when raising the subject of mental and physical health and wellbeing at the workplace. This will help get colleagues and decision-makers on board and reach those who could most benefit from your caring initiative. The delicate balance is not to intrude or intimidate when starting the conversation or introducing activities.

Check the “temperature” of the workplace and determine whether discreet conversations are needed before starting or whether it’s appropriate to try group icebreakers or physical activities. Consult a facilitator or expert if needed. You should also be mindful that staff members are diverse and physical barriers can prevent them from participating.

On the following pages we’ll highlight a few established ideas for conversationstarters, icebreakers and physical activities.

1. Talk

Established conversation-starters 1. Talk

Some of the most impactful and catchy awareness-raising messages about mental health and wellbeing have been invented by people in the community who wanted to speak up. Sometimes from their own experience, sometimes from others’, and always because they know that the topic is too important to ignore. How can we learn from them when we want to say: “We need to talk – in a good way”? Here are 3 examples.



It looks like a text message you might receive from your mother, but R U OK? has been one of the most effective mental health awareness-raising campaigns in Australia. And the phrase has “gone viral” – also in a good way – as a conversation-started across the country. The founder of this phrase and movement, Gavin Larkin, was an ordinary citizen who wanted to raise awareness after his father’s suicide, and now the conversation-starter is celebrated as an annual “Day” on 8 September.

How to ask friends and colleagues “R U OK?”


“How full is your battery right now?”

Dominique de Marné from Mental Health Europe started her TEDxTUM talk ‘Let’s talk about mental health’ with another question that could first evoke thoughts about tech (“my phone is fully charged, thank you very much”), but is really about our physical and mental batteries and what happens when they run low. Drawing on her own struggles with mental health, Dominique urges this conversation-starter to be adopted everywhere, especially in workplaces: “Why do we support a colleague when they’re in the hospital with a broken leg, but tiptoe around the topic when they’re suffering from depression?”

Recharge your battery and learn more


The Hand of Mental Health

No, this was not the title of heavy metal band Lordi’s Eurovision winner; instead, it’s a very useful visual tool to start the conversation about mental wellbeing. You can use it as an active icebreaker at meetings – get up, walk around and attach word prompts to all five fingers: Sleep & Rest, Eating Habits, Relationships & Emotions, Exercise & Mindfulness, Creativity & Pleasure. Ask questions to a partner or group to reflect on how you’ve been doing in these five categories over the past week. Discuss or let the reflections settle into gentle mindfulness or gradual behaviour change.

Download and use The Hand of Mental Health


Make guilt-free time for active breaks.

Or brain breaks. Or MOVEment Pills. Whatever you want to call them, taking regular breaks from the desk is an essential way to recharge the body and reboot the brain. It’s important for workplaces to make guilt- and consequence-free time for all staff to take active breaks, either as independent “time out” or together with colleagues for some fun social interaction.

Brain Breaks is a common term for taking your mind off work for a few minutes and exercising it in a different way, which can be as active as running up and down the stairs or as passive as staring out of the window at something green. Active Breaks and MOVEment Pills are all about short bursts of physical activity. We like the term MOVEment Pills because “If physical exercise were a drug, it would be hitting the headlines,” as Professor Jane Maher, Macmillan Cancer Support Chief Medical Officer, points out.

With time being such a limiting factor, psychologists are starting to dive into studies on the effects of short bursts of moderate-to-high intensity physical activity on the brain. They know exercise helps, but how much (or how little) at a time makes a difference? 10 minutes, according to David Moreau from the University of Auckland (2018), who found positive effects on cognitive function and memory among children over a 6-week study.

Brand new research on “brief bursts of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity” (VILPA for short ) argues that much shorter bursts of exercise count too – 1 to 2 minutes! (3 to 4 times a day!) This Stamatakis et al. (2022) study claims to be the first to solely measure the effects of non-organised, daily exercise like “very fast walking while commuting to work or moving from place to place, or stair climbing”. So watch this space for more compelling evidence…

Short bursts of physical activity pay off

“Just 10 minutes of physical activity can increase brainpower for a short time afterward.” (Time/Western University Canada, 2017)

“Any amount of physical activity is better than none, and more is better.” (WHO, 2020)

15 Talk
2. Pause & MOVE
Photo: BG Be Active

Brain Breaks

Brain breaks are about giving our minds a rest or allowing them to focus on something else. They can be passive or active, brief or longer pauses. There are many resources and how-to videos online – here we suggest some 2-5-minute breaks that calm, stretch or re-wire different parts of the body.

Breathing I Deep Dive

“This is a classic deep breath. You can change the amount of time for each, but the key is to slowly inhale and exhale, and to hold the breath for a certain amount of time. In this one, inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, and exhale for 5 seconds.”

Longer break: Yoga with Adriene’s Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique

Eyes I 7 easy exercises

If you want to take a break from Zooming, try… Zooming. It’s not about staring at Muppet Show-like squares on a screen, it’s one of 7 exercises recommended by an optician to give your eyes a break and reduce eye strain: Flexing, Blinking, Focusing, Palming, Zooming, Figure-Eight(ing?) and Resting.

Ears I Attention Training Technique (ATT)

This can be done inside or outside the office, where many simultaneous sounds compete with each other for your attention. The full Attention Training Technique and exercises are found to reduce anxiety and depression symptoms by reverting our attention from distressing thoughts. Mastering this training can be a lengthy process, but you can use a similar technique for a micro-break. Go outside and listen to all sounds you can hear. How many can you detect and what are they?

Hands I Triangle/Rectangle

It’s as simple as drawing a triangle with one hand and a square with the other. Or is it…?

Try this at a meeting or in a group for a comical experience – and enjoy the laughs that follow! As demonstrated here by partners of the Hungarian School Sport Federation’s GEM project.

Arms & legs I Cross crawls

Stretch down to touch your knee with your opposite elbow. Repeat on the other side. Repeat. Stop when you’ve had enough of this exercise.

Full-body I Stand, stretch and jump

You can stand up at your desk anytime to stretch your body. ISCA Youth Officer Shubham Mane guides you through a stretching, breathing and higher tempo exercise to refresh the body and mind.

Talk 2. Pause & MOVE

Active Breaks

Now let’s up the tempo and make it more social.

More 2-minute active breaks I Video playlist

ISCA created this Active Breaks playlist to get delegates at a WHO conference moving. But you can also play them anytime to loosen up your neck and back, work out “like a boss” with our Secretary General Jacob Schouenborg’s average work day routine, and practise for your winter ski holiday at your desk!

Roll the active break dice – for individuals, pairs or teams

Active break dice (see below, Dansk Firmaidræts Forbund)

Simon says “Climb the stairs!” I Video

One leader takes their colleagues out to the nearest staircase for an active break. Watch the video to get inspired by ISCA’s own “Simon says” game on the stairs with DGI on No Elevators Day. “Simon”, aka Shub, gave the instructions and you can make these whatever you wish: climb 3 stairs up, 2 stairs down, dance, hop, do the opposite when I say this…

Catalogue of activities: Inspiration for colleague exercise I E-booklet

A whole collection of activity ideas developed by Dansk Firmaidræts Forbund for the National Workspace Activity Day and European Week of Sport #BeActive campaign in Denmark

Secrets to active break success

• Make it easy (no sportswear required; not too technical or touchy-feely)

• Make time for it (a timeslot that won’t disturb focus, e.g. before lunch)

• Find ambassadors and get endorsement from leadership

• Try a “test phase” to find the right formula

• Keep it simple with your activities

Talk 2. Pause & MOVE

Talk 2. Pause & MOVE

Binge watch & MOVE.

We’ve created our own YouTube playlists full of Active Breaks (see previous page) and MOVEment Pills videos that will get you hooked and moving at the same time. These bite-sized exercise videos can be consumed a few minutes at a time or all together in an active binge-a-thon. Use them at home or at the office and you can even become an influencer and make your own!

MOVEment Pills

• Office exercises

• Stair snacking exercises

• Outdoor bench exercises

• Living room short workouts

• MOVE Week Gym longer workouts

Light, moderate, high intensity – what’s the difference?

“Dr Edward Phillips from Harvard Medical School recommends the ‘talk test’: If you can talk and you can sing, that’s light exercise. With moderate exercise, you can talk but you can’t sing, and if you’re working vigorously, you can’t finish your sentence. So to get the benefits of a short, high intensity workout, aim to push hard enough that you’re not able to carry on a conversation or sing along to your queued up Lizzo playlist.”

(Source: yahoo!, 2021)

Browse our MOVEment Pills toolkit to find out more about the concept and the history of “exercise on prescription”.

Who’s Lizzo?

Here’s an alternative playlist of 80s fitness classics to raise your pulse and mood:

(Synthercise workout playlist by Beyond Yacht Rock)

here to download

3. Work & MOVE Integrating physical activity with work

Available! (at your desk)

• Adjustable office desks

• Exercise ball

• The invisible office chair

• Talk to your colleagues! (fewer emails, less sitting, more connection)

In meetings

• Walk & talk meetings (p. 28-29)

• Standing meetings

• Active Bingo icebreaker

• Hourly MOVE (in-person or online – stand and stretch or active break)


• Tidy up your shizz! Take 10 minutes to declutter your workspace as a team (add music to keep up the tempo) and spark Marie Kondo-like joy!

• She shoots, she scores! Waste paper challenge

• Print or copy

Out to lunch

• The microwave

• Lunchtime walk – make it brisk!


Walking, biking, “climbing” to the office.

Use your daily commute to start the day fresh or make sure to break up remote or home office work with a regular walk around the block.

Walk to work

This of course, depends on the distance from your home to work. If it’s a walkable commute, it could be a great way to add some physical activity to your day. Or if you have to drive or take public transport, you can also park and walk or get off a couple of stops earlier. To keep track of your process or keep motivated, most smart phones will have built-in step counters, so you can set personal challenges to walk a certain number of steps or kilometres to work each week. Or experiment with other walking apps and start friendly competitions with your colleagues. Check out whether there are walk to work days in your city too!

Bike to work

Bike-friendly countries Denmark and the Netherlands lead the way in everyday pedalpowered active transport and bike to work challenges. But cycling movements are growing around the world – especially during the pandemic when people looked for alternatives to public transport.

“Climb” to work

Stair climbing can also be part of your daily commute to work. How often do we make a subconscious choice to use escalators and lifts? Our No Elevators Day video shows how to turn this automatic (convenient) impulse around.

Working remotely?

When you don’t need to commute, it’s tempting to stay in your work cave and keep typing all day long. But that will only give you repetitive strain injury (RSI) in your hands and wrists – and even if it helps you meet your deadlines, it does little else for your physical and mental wellbeing. Take a walk during lunch or make sure to get up and move regularly if you’re working alone. Try breaking up longer online meetings with a “stand up and stretch” break or a short active break led by you or a colleague.

20 Talk


Allow flexibility to choose the right activity.

Introducing activities to the office can easily backfire if employees feel forced to do them and punished if they don’t – this can add to their anxiety and stress rather than alleviating it. So it’s another fine balance between making time for exercise and play and squeezing “mandatory fun” into people’s overfilled calendars or after office hours. It’s important to make activities optional, customisable or completely flexible –allowing individuals or groups to choose what they want to do. If there is budget or potential for cooperation with a fitness centre or club to arrange employee discounts or free memberships, this is also a great option.

If employees can “find the move that moves them”, they will be more likely to genuinely enjoy it and be motivated to continue. That’s why #FindYourMOVE has been the slogan of our NowWeMOVE campaign since 2013.

Flexible approaches can be company-led or employee-led.

Company-led: “Smart companies are working to identify the types of ‘fun’ workers actually like: the things they’ll show up for because they want to, not because their arm’s twisted.”

Employee-led: “[During the pandemic] team-building events and ‘fun’ ceased to be top-down. ‘Employees would lead a Zoom yoga class, or a cooking class for their colleagues. It’s an interesting shift, away from ‘you have to do this,’ and toward, ‘what do you guys really want to do?’”

21 Talk

Nudges, apps and the team-building day

Everyday nudges and prompts I Poster

What’s that in the corner over there? An activity dice? Some juggling balls? A balancing step? A stretchy band? Playfully placing equipment and other prompts – like posters – can invite staff to do something active when they have a restless moment during the day. They will follow their curiosity rather than a “forceful shove” towards movement.


Apps like the Estonian (now global) Stebby can help staff find activities they’re interested in and convenient locations where they can try them out. Companies can use Stebby to provide physical activity services to their employees without restricting them to facilities at the office or facilities with whom they have a reciprocal agreement. Tech is the now and the future – and it’s not all sedentary!

The team-building day

Team-building days can be a good way for staff to try out different physical activities. They can also be a dreaded time of the year for employees who aren’t that sporty or feel uncomfortable with party games. Include everyone by making your activities nonintrusive (i.e. don’t impose touchy-feely games on staff unless everyone is on board) and easy to do. Or set different skill levels or customise roles to staff based on their preferences.

Easy, non-intrusive

• Yoga

• Treasure hunts or walks in green spaces

• Miming games

• Games in a circle (e.g. Woosh, Bang, Zap)

• Expert-led breathing or mindfulness workshops

More adventurous or sporty

• Stand-up paddling (SUP)

• Climbing

• Padel

• Frisbee games

• Silent disco

Talk 5. FindYourMOVE


6. Join other MOVEments

Get involved in days, events and campaigns.

Keep an eye out for global days to celebrate or raise awareness about physical and mental health and wellbeing. Or join in local physical activity events or races, like Denmark’s DHL company relay. Here are some days in our calendar – you can find some relevant days to celebrate in your office too.


Every quarter (starting January)

Tæl Skridt (Count steps with your colleagues, Denmark, Dansk Firmaidræt)

3 February

Time to Talk Day (UK, Mind, Rethink Mental Illness, Co-op)

Last Wednesday in April

No Elevators Day

Last week of May/first week of June


8 September

R U OK Day (Australia)

23-30 September

European Week of Sport, Semana Mueve (Latin America)

10 October

World Mental Health Day (WHO)

Mental Health Awareness months (May and October)

US (since 1949!), Europe, UN/International

Photo: BG Be Active

Talk 6. Join other MOVEments

Spotlight on No Elevators Day

A staircase, or even just a couple of steps at an entrance or in a sunken room, can be an accessible, fun and useful tool to put a moment of play into the office routine. Here are a few ways you can use the stairs for a pulse-raising way to boost your and your colleagues’ physical and mental wellbeing.

Make it a daily habit to use the stairs

Encourage employees to use the stairs instead of elevators and escalators every day (of course, take into consideration accessibility requirements for people with disabilities and medical conditions).

Use a motto to raise awareness

You can use our free posters or put your own slogans near elevators and staircases in your building: Burn calories, not electricity. #UseTheStairs #NowWeTakeTheStairs #TakeTheStairs

Turn the stairs into a free gym

You can also to use the stairs for a short or a full workout. Here’s our collection of stairs workouts.

Organise a challenge

Do you want to set a stair-climbing target for your average week or for the next month or two? How many flights of stairs do you think you can climb? Challenge your colleagues to a friendly competition.

Join in the global No Elevators Day

The last Wednesday of April is #NoElevatorsDay – mark it in your calendar! It is a fun and free event aimed at encouraging people to choose the stairs over elevators or escalators. Register an event or share on social media how you #UseTheStairs on #NoElevatorsDay – find out more at


How-to infographic

How-to Urban Intervention Toolkit, Action and Communication Guide

How-to video

Instagram easy stairs workout

Short video for office workers


What happens to our brains and bodies when we don’t experience micro-moments or connections with other people?

And what happens when we do? Lars AP from the F***ing Friendly (Flink) movement reveals the surprising power of micro-moments – watch the video.

Act. Belong. Commit.

What do we mean by “stick at it”? The Act-Belong-Commit (ABC) initiative sums it up well. ABC is a tested approach that was established by mental health professionals in Western Australia and has been rolled out in Denmark by a multi-stakeholder partnership, including ISCA member DGI. It is, literally, as easy as ABC to remember and it offers three calls to action that office workers can use to help themselves, their colleagues and their communities outside of work.

ACT: Do something

Keep mentally, physically, socially, spiritually and culturally active.

BELONG: Do something with someone

Connect socially with colleagues, friends, family and groups in the community.

COMMIT: Do something meaningful

Find purpose, not only obligations, in life by doing something you want to do and be proud of: volunteering, learning or trying something new, helping others, supporting a cause.

Source: Donovan & Koushede, et al. (2021).

“Stick at it” means to take proactive steps and not give up. In a workplace context, it can mean taking action to embed steps to boost employee wellbeing and physical activity into your organisation’s culture, and appointing ambassadors to keep the initiatives going and keep colleagues connected.

On the following pages we’ll present three case examples: DGI and ABC for Mental Health in more depth and two #BeActive Award Workplace finalists, House of Code and EWII.

Watch our webinar to learn more about ABC and how positive “micro-actions” or moments make a difference.

7. Stick at it

Case 1: Work together on mental health promotion

DGI’s ABC for Mental Health consultant Lone Brink Rasmussen explains why the workplace is a “social determinant of mental health”, why we need collaboration rather than an individual approach to improving mental health and how DGI, as a community sport umbrella association, has achieved success with ABC.

DGI – ABC of Mental Health

“The moment we make a shift from the focus on treatment to mental health promotion, we’re in the boat together. It’s not about you or me anymore. It’s a shared responsibility for improving mental health, both our own mental health, but also each other’s mental health. And that recognition also shows in the way that we have approached working with Act-Belong-Commit in Denmark.

We’re in a steering group with more than 60 different partners. They range from public institutions, municipalities, regions to NGOs, different kinds of stakeholders and interest groups of cultural, social aspects or patient groups. We work as social franchises in the

way that we promote the mental health – not only within our own organisations, but we also buy in on the idea that we can help lift each other. The people we have here are people that are working with the social determinants of mental health. We use this shared language called Act-Belong-Commit to gather professions across geography, across sectors, and it helps us justify having one united path working towards improving mental health in Denmark.

So what is this wonder kit that we’re talking about? Act-Belong-Commit is the English version of it. In Denmark, we’ve translated it into ABC of Mental Health only because ActBelong-Commit doesn’t translate easily into Danish. So in order to keep the ABC, we are calling the ABC of Mental Health.

It’s an evidence-based mental health promotion campaign that originated at Curtin University in Western Australia and we have adopted it, and it is working wonders. What it focuses on is basically to encourage individuals and communities to take responsibility and improve their mental health. And it can be used by everyone, which is actually the perfect thing. It’s simple. And that is also why a lot of our partners and collaborating institutions buy in on this idea, because it’s empowering – wherever you are and whatever situation you’re in. It’s context adaptable.”

Find out more about Act-Belong-Commit (Australia)

and ABC for mental sundhed (Denmark)

Resource list from University of Copenhagen’s Department of Psychology

Download the ABC for Mental Health ‘fortune teller/nip napper’ game

Watch Lone and ABC Project Manager Hanna Christensen’s full presentation (video)

What’s a fortune teller?

Talk 7. Stick at it

Case 2: Creating an active workplace culture

A healthy attitude towards maintaining a work/play balance in your office will help you create a sustainable workplace and demonstrate that your organisation’s work culture has a positive impact on your employees’ health. Check out the following two stories for real-life examples of how paying attention to a team’s wellbeing can boost a company’s success.

House of Code – an IT company

Winner of the 2020 #BeActive Workplace Award, the European Commission’s recognition of outstanding work and commitment at local levels to promote sport and physical activity in Europe.

2 active hours per week

Each employee gets two hours a week of their working time for physical activity and one more hour for personal development. About 80% of all employees make use of the hours offered for the physical activity weekly session, which makes exercise an integral part of company’s working culture.

Daily active break

Employees exercise together for five minutes in the middle of the day. Physical activity is something that connects the employees and creates a friendly atmosphere in the team, as some people do yoga, run or cycle together, or even play badminton at a sports arena close to the office, also provided by the employer.

Healthy “perks” and advice

Healthy “perks” provided also include breakfast and lunch, desks with adjustable height and sports equipment. Everyone is entitled to an annual allowance of 1000 DKK (around 130 euro) to purchase corporate-branded sports clothing. There is also a possibility to check in with a physiotherapist, who is occasionally invited to the office and can help improve sitting or standing positions behind the desk.

Regular check-ins

The management makes sure to discuss with the employees individually how the active breaks and physical activity sessions are working for them.

Healthy ambassadors

Meanwhile, the management team itself “walks the walk” by holding weekly meetings in a training centre while they train.

A healthy bottom line

The company’s reputation is going from strength-to-strength due to the initiative, as job applicants are mentioning its healthy profile as one of the reasons for applying. In 2019 the House of Code initiative won the title of Denmark’s Healthiest Workplace in the region of Southern Denmark.

Talk 7. Stick at it

Case 3: Creating an active workplace culture

EWII – a Danish energy company

This year’s nominee from Denmark for the #BeActive Workplace Award has health at the core of its company culture. This is a huge plus for the majority of its 500 staff.

Voluntary health ambassadors

Volunteers among the staff who are passionate about health and have a strong community vibe play an integral role in motivating staff to be active. They organise a variety of activities: from obstacle course training, football, biking and climbing to mindfulness and participation in fun runs such as the Royal Run and DHL (“corporate” relay). There are lots of learning opportunities for the health ambassadors, too: they can take external courses and webinars.

An annual theme

One to three activities are arranged each month and they are usually devoted to an annual theme (“humour moves” in 2022).

Healthy pop-ups

The health ambassadors also arrange “healthy pop-ups” with exercises and healthy treats at the introduction of new employees as well as during a regular working day.

Rewards for active staff

To motivate its employees, EWII has come up with a “Health Cups” initiative, which rewards the most active employees. Employees are proud to be a part of this award and are happy to pose for pictures for the company’s social media channels. In 2021, half of the employees at EWII (266) took part in one of the 18 after work activities. The health ambassadors could proudly hand out >50 Health Cups!

Activity budget

What works so well for the employees is that they have a plenty of opportunities to be active during a normal workday in EWII: the possibility to take daily walks during the lunch break or a short mental break with a ping pong game together the colleagues cannot be overestimated. To make all this possible every year, EWII allocates a budget of DKK 250,000 (around 33,000 euro) to fund the activities, instructors, healthy food and drinks, materials, equipment, clothes and rewards.

Job satisfaction guaranteed!

The staff seem to be happy with their company’s ambition to take responsibility for employee wellbeing: according to a survey, their job satisfaction is 76%.

Talk 7.
at it

Beyond “exercise is medicine”

How and when to seek further help.

When the WHO published its ‘Guidelines on mental health at work’ in 2022, it highlighted psychosocial and physical activity interventions as “Universal individual interventions” (8A and 8B) to “promote positive mental health, reduce emotional distress and improve work effectiveness” and “improve mental health and work ability”. In particular, it listed mindfulness, resistance training, strength-training, aerobic training, walking or yoga as potential activities that could help. It added that “For workers with emotional distress, physical exercise, such as aerobic training and weight-training, may be considered in order to reduce these symptoms” (10B).

Including physical activity in these recommendations is a firm endorsement of the value of active and social interventions in workplace settings. In our toolkit on MOVEment Pills and exercise on prescription, we take a closer look at the idea of “exercise is medicine” and how medical practitioners have experimented with prescribing exercise to patients since the 1970s. But we also recognise there, and here, that exercise is not a magic pill that can cure all ailments or adverse situations. We also recognise the footnotes below the WHO’s recommendations 8A, 8B and 10B that claim “low” to “very low certainty evidence” that exercise is a cure-all solution. It may not be, but it can certainly be a positive move for workplaces to take to boost their staff wellbeing, connectedness and motivation.

Workplaces and managers cannot replace medical advice and treatment, and employees should always seek professional advice when they are struggling physically or mentally. Mental health conditions may be caused by a number of unrelated factors, but “work is a social determinant of mental health” and workplaces can be “adjustable” environments. It just takes human initiative to make them more nurturing environments that help employees thrive.

We hope that this toolkit inspires workplaces and physical activity promoters to create those positive conditions and have fun whilst doing so. And to always be aware of what they cannot fix, and when to help others find the support they need.

29 Talk


Text & Research

Rachel Payne, ISCA

Text & Research

Maria Malyshkina, ISCA


Kristine Onarheim, ISCA

Expert Input

Lone Brink Rasmussen & Hanna Christensen, DGI

Expert Input

Stine Dragsbæk, Dansk Firmaidræt


Resources & references



ISCA Health

ISCA online learning courses

No Elevators Day


MOVEment Pills

Act-Belong-Commit (Australia)

The ABCs of Mental Health (Denmark)


Dansk Firmaidræt. (2020). Catalogue of activities.

ABC for mental sundhed (DGI for sports clubs)

Workplace Activity Day (Dansk Firmaidræt)

Dansk Firmaidræt. (2022). Derfor skal du dyrke kollegamotion i arbejdstiden – og sådan kommer du i gang [Why you should get your colleagues active during working hours – and where to start].

De Marné, D. (2020). Let’s talk about mental health [video].

DGI. (2022). Sæt fokus på fællesskabet [ABC for Mental Health/Act-Belong-Commit].

Donovan, R. J., & Koushede, V. J. et al. (2021). Twenty-One Reasons for Implementing the Act-Belong-Commit— ‘ABCs of Mental Health’ Campaign. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

European Commission & Kantar. (2022). Special Eurobarometer 525: Sport and Physical Activity.

Eurostat. (2021, September). Self-reported work-related health problems and risk factors - key statistics. Institute for Employment Studies. (2022, May). Is employee loneliness the next pandemic to challenge HR?

Koushede, V. J., Nielsen, L., Meilstrup, C. B. & Donovan, R. (2015). From rhetoric to action: adapting the ActBelong-Commit Mental Health Promotion Programme to a Danish Context. Journal of Mental Health Promotion. McKinsey Quarterly. (2022). The great exhaustion.

Meilstrup C. B., & Nielsen L., et al. (2022). ABC for mental sundhed – mental sundhedsfremme for alle [ABCs of Mental Health – mental health promotion for all].

Mental Health Europe. (2021). Mental health & work.

Mieli. (2022). The Hand of Mental Health.

Mind, Edge Hill University, & Loughborough University. (2022). Moving for mental health: How physical activity, sport and sport for development can transform lives after COVID-19.

Moreau, D. (2018). Short burst of exercise improve brain function [sic].

Morgan/BBC. (2022). The death of ‘mandatory fun’ in the office.

NIH National Institutes of Health. (2019). Physical activity may reduce depression symptoms.


Resources & references

OECD Legal Instruments. (2021, May). Recommendation of the Council on Integrated Mental Health, Skills and Work Policy.

OECD. (2021, November). Fitter Minds, Fitter Jobs: From Awareness to Change in Integrated Mental Health, Skills and Work Policies.

Parry, S., & Straker, L. (2013). The contribution of office work to sedentary behaviour associated risk. BMC public health.

RUOK. (2022). Ask RUOK?

Smith, A., Kinnafick, F. & Rogers, E. (2022). Moving for mental health: How physical activity, sport and sport for development can transform lives after COVID-19. London: Sport for Development Coalition/Mind.

Stamatkis et al. (2022). Association of wearable device-measured vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity with mortality.

Stanley, E. (1873). ‘Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise’ (quote).

Time/Western University Canada. (2017). Just 10 Minutes of Exercise Can Help Your Brain.

WHO. (2020). WHO guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour.

WHO. (2022, 2 March). COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.

WHO. (2022). Mental health at work.

Yahoo! (2021). Good news: Short bursts of exercise can keep you healthy.


#FindYourMOVE and enjoy better health!

ISCA launched the NowWeMOVE campaign and its flagship event MOVE Week in 2012 with the vision to help more people find their MOVE and be active through accessible community-led events. The campaign has since grown to feature annual events such as No Elevators Day and advocacy resources such as the MOVEment Pills. This toolkit was created with support from an EU Operating Grant in the field of Health.

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