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Sport and Exercise Sciences, Leisure and Tourism: Improving health through reducing sitting time in the workplace and education

Prof Lee Smith

ARU research on the health benefits of replacing sedentary behaviour with physical activity led to a workplace wellbeing initiative that improved the health of 8,600 employees, and a school wellbeing initiative that has supported 25,000 pupils.

This work has created three jobs and generated income for both Mitie corporation and Active Movements.

Prof Lee Smith

Professor Lee Smith

Lee is an epidemiologist and Professor of Public Health. He researches ways in which we can increase levels of physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour across the lifespan and within special populations.

Find out more about Prof Lee Smith Explore ARU researchers' original work via our open access repository, ARRO

Research summary

Prof Smith's research predominantly used epidemiological, as well as meta-research, techniques, and demonstrates that replacing sedentary behaviour with physical activity is associated with positive mental and physical health across all ages.

He used an isotemporal substitution model to identify that the substitution of 30 minutes of sedentary behaviour with 30 minutes of physical activity was associated with improved anxiety symptoms in adults.

His other epidemiological analyses have demonstrated that each weekly hour of physical activity reduced sickness absence by 1.20 days per year.

Prof Smith's work has identified several factors that play a role in workplace physical activity levels and sedentary time, such as:

  • habits for movement
  • distance from each workstation to all other office destinations
  • nearest office destinations to workstation
  • visibility of workstations when standing
  • perceived management discouragement of unscheduled breaks.

Prof Smith has also published research about the implementation of sedentary reduction and improvement of physical activity interventions in educational environments.

For example, key findings from the Camden Active Spaces Project, a large trial investigating the impact of school and playground layout on movement, observed a reduction in sedentary time in young children after active playgrounds were implemented.

Prof Smith additionally identified that, as children age, their physical activity levels decrease, and their sedentary time increases.

Taken together, this work demonstrates that replacing sedentary behaviour with physical activity may improve mental and physical health.

Moreover, this work identifies appropriate correlates and strategies that may be employed to achieve the displacement of sedentary time with time spent in physical activity. The initiatives that Prof Smith designed to displace sedentary time with physical activity drew solely on this underpinning research.

An office worker at a standing desk

Summary of the impact

  • Increased levels of physical activity among 8,600 Essex County Council employees
  • Improved the attention and health of 200 students at the College of West Anglia by installing standing desks; these will be rolled out to a total of 10,000 students across three campuses
  • Improved the activity levels and health of over 25,000 schoolchildren in the UK and Spain through activity programmes


Prof Smith worked with Mitie, one of the UK’s leading facilities management and professional services companies, to develop a workplace well-being initiative designed to reduce sedentarism and increase physical activity.

Mitie now sells and implements the initiative as a service package to clients, employing one full-time member of staff to deliver the service and generating turnover of £1,500 to £10,000 per client.

Essex County Council implemented the initiative in January 2019 to all its 8,600 employees and data was collected.

The evaluation shows positive behavioural outcomes among those who experienced the initiative: self-reported increased desire and motivations to be physically active and less sedentary, and self-reported reductions of at least 8% on workplace stress and general anxiety scales.

The College of West Anglia (CWA) approached Prof Smith to advise on the implementation of standing desks after he gave a presentation to college staff about the potential health and cognitive impact of this equipment.

Approximately 200 students were initially exposed to the standing desks from March 2019, and their performance was evaluated. Prof Smith helped collect detailed data on the impact of the standing desks on the students’ activity levels, health, and attention in class.

As a result, college lecturers, using an effort and attention scale, reported that students were able to engage at a higher level when they used the standing desks than when they used the usual seated desks. It is expected that this will subsequently lead to better course performance.

Standing desks increased students’ standing time, reduced students’ sitting time, decreased waist circumference, increased grip strength, and increased attention in class over a six-month period.

Due to the success of standing desks on students’ health, CWA has started to introduce standing desks across all three of its campuses (King’s Lynn, Wisbech, and Milton), serving a total of 10,000 students.

Read more about .

Active Movements is a large initiative set up by Dr Mike Loosemore that seeks to integrate low-level activity into daily routine for health and well-being. It has been developed and continuously updated based on Prof Smith’s research, and further consultation with Prof Smith.

Active Movements’ flagship programme for children is a year-long intervention designed to displace sitting with movement in primary and secondary schools. Since 2016, the programme has been implemented across Berkshire, Greater London, Sussex, Essex and Buckinghamshire reaching approximately 70 schools and 25,000 children by December 2020.

Delivering the initiative has resulted in the creation of one full-time position within the Active Movement company. It is having profound impact on school children’s activity levels and health.

Compared to a matched comparison school, children in an Active Movements intervention school exhibited a better physical activity and sedentary behaviour profile, a reduction in waist circumference from an average baseline of 65.24 cm to 63.41 cm at follow-up and an improvement in handgrip strength of over 3kg (whereas waist circumference in the comparison school increased over the same period and handgrip strength only increased by 2kg - the natural increase expected over time as children develop).

Prof Smith is also an Honorary Professor at the University of Murcia, Spain. In this position he was contacted by the representatives of CEIP Andrés Baquero, a primary school based in Murcia, to adapt the Active Movement programme specifically for their school. 200 students have been exposed to the intervention, with similar impacts observed to those listed above.

Read more about .

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We have mapped our REF 2021 impact case studies against the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs, adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, are an urgent call for action. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

This case study is mapped to SDG 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, target 3.4.

See also

Read the full REF 2021 impact case study for UoA 24: Improving health through reducing sitting time in the workplace and education (PDF)

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