Physical inactivity is the fourth leading global risk for mortality in the world (1). Urbanization, the increase in passive modes of transport, and the increase in sedentary behavior during occupational and leisure activities are some of the reasons pointed out for the global increase in physical inactivity. Office workers, also referred to as white-collar workers, are particularly susceptible to a sedentary lifestyle as their work requires long, and uninterrupted periods of sitting (2, 3). Prolonged sitting periods often lead to neck-, lower back- and shoulder pain (4, 5), with the prevalence of musculoskeletal symptoms among office workers being above 63% (5). Although some of these conditions are temporary, they often lead to chronicity and consequent socio-economic burden (6). Studies in physical activity patterns suggest that office workers, and in particular high-educated individuals, often fit a weekend warrior profile (7–9), characterized by trying to compensate for the low physical activity during the workdays with high engagement in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity during non-work days (7). While some studies report that compiling all the exercise activities in 1–2 sessions a week may be sufficient to reduce all-cause mortality (10, 11), it remains unclear whether such exercise sessions can reverse the damage caused by long periods of sitting (12). In this line, many strategies to promote health and wellbeing among office workers target the disruption of long sitting periods at the office and the promotion of short sessions of light physical activity. While some of these interventions focus on workstation adaptation (e.g. (13, 14)), counseling sessions with coaches (e.g. (15)), or promote more sit-to-stand variation (e.g. (13)), a growing number of technology-based interventions, also called eHealth or digital health interventions, is being developed to promote breaks in sedentary behavior among office workers (e.g. (16, 17)). However, current interventions targeting the promotion of physical activity and interruption of inactivity among office workers do not consider situations of flexible work (i.e., working partly from home). As an example, while interventions at the workplace can rely on the role of peer pressure – for example by promoting walking-meetings or collective lunch walks – when working from home the individuals need to find the motivation themselves to incorporate active breaks in their daily work.
The COVID-19 outbreak caused abrupt changes in the lifestyle and wellbeing of the global population, also to those who were not infected with the virus. Many countries have required their citizens to stay at home during national lockdowns to minimize the spread of this infectious disease (18). As a consequence, office workers were asked to work from home whenever possible, facilities for sports and exercising were closed, and group activities were canceled. This reduced the opportunity to participate in physical activity and, combined with increased stress and anxiety, favored less active lifestyles (19, 20). However, fitness tracker companies reported an increase in the logging of indoor sport-related activities. For example, one of the global largest producers of activity trackers reported that the number of steps worldwide was reduced by 12% in April 2020 compared to the same month in 2019, but that steps from workout activities were increased by 24% (21). This change in the activity patterns suggests that some individuals have found strategies to be physically active while working remotely.
Perceived facilitators and barriers to engaging in physical activity may affect someone’s physical behavior and susceptibility to change this behavior (22). The main facilitator for physical activity is the convenient availability of activities and facilities (23–25). Another facilitator could be having children, as parents want to serve as role models and spend active time with their children (26, 27). According to Borodulin and colleagues (28), barriers to physical activity may differ depending on employment status, age, and family status. A major barrier constraining physical activity among employed adults is a high work demand or lack of time (23, 24, 26, 27, 29–31). Other barriers found in literature are lack of facilities (23, 24, 26, 27, 29, 30), health reasons (23–25, 30–32), family obligations (26, 27) and lack of motivation (27, 28, 31, 32). Motivation to be physically active in the frame of the Self-Determination Theory (33) differentiates between six motivation profiles: a-motivation, external, introjected, identified and integrated regulations, and intrinsic motivation (34). A recent study showed that the motivation to engage in healthy behaviors may influence the preference for persuasive features included in technology-based applications (35). The study by van Velsen and colleagues showed that intrinsically motivated users appreciated all persuasive features, while externally regulated users were mostly motivated by particular persuasive features, such as showing progress, self-goal setting, rewards in the form of compliments, and health education (35).
In this paper, we hypothesize that the extent to which the individuals found strategies to incorporate physical activity in their daily life during the COVID-19 lockdown was influenced by (1) motivation to be active, and (2) perceived facilitators and barriers to incorporate physical activity while working from home. The research presented in this manuscript is very timely as the COVID-19 lockdown provides an opportunity to research how remote working influences physical behavior, as most office workers were forced to work from home. To date, the impact of flexible work (i.e. working partly from home) has been scarcely investigated in the literature, with some indication that flexible work does not impact physical activity but increases sedentary behavior (36). Considering that fully remote or flexible work has become the normal way of working for office workers in many countries, the results of this study are of high relevance to understanding how to define new strategies to promote physical activity in the daily life of office workers adapted to the remote working setting. Particularly, by identifying the facilitators and barriers perceived by office workers to engage in physical activity while working remotely during the COVID-19 lockdown, we could tailor health promotion interventions to tackle these questions and help the worker find strategies to reach an active lifestyle. The results of this study will be used in the development of technology-based interventions promoting an active lifestyle among office workers.