The modern sedentary workplace is a significant contributor to the global epidemic of poor physical fitness, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Increasingly, employees and employers are recognizing the benefits of promoting fitness in the workplace, with incentive programs and on-site fitness instructors and facilities.
Promoting fitness in the workplace can increase productivity and job satisfaction and lower employee medical costs. A workforce that is overweight or obese and physically unfit has major economic ramifications for business and industry, as well as for the population as a whole. Numerous studies have shown that a significant proportion of escalating employer and employee healthcare costs is due to obesity-related conditions caused, in part, by lack of physical activity. The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics estimates that healthcare expenses for obese employees are 42% higher than for those who are of healthy weight. Healthy, active workers are also more productive and have lower rates of absenteeism.
Research has demonstrated that aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain, strengthens connections between neurons, and promotes the formation of new brain cells. This makes for smarter, more productive employees who are less likely to experience cognitive decline as they age. Studies also indicate that exercise is important for relieving chronic job stress that contributes to reduced productivity, absenteeism, and obesity. Because most adults spend more than half their waking hours at work, the workplace is a natural setting for implementing fitness and other wellness programs.
Employers and employees are recognizing the importance of fitness in the workplace. Among the Working Mother 100 Best Companies to work for in 2016, 83% had onsite fitness facilities compared to 26% of U.S. companies overall. As of 2016, an estimated 40%–50% of employers with wellness programs utilized employee fitness trackers. It was projected that by 2018, employers would have incorporated more than 13 million fitness-tracking devices into their employee wellness programs. These wearable devices help keep individuals accountable for their physical activity, because one study found that people tend to overestimate their exercise by more than 50 minutes per week, while underestimating their sedentary time by more than 2 hours per week. Although employee participation in workplace wellness and fitness programs varies, some companies have reached participation rates above 85%. A 2015 report by the Society for Human Resource Management reported that 70% of U.S. employers offered general wellness programs, and another 8% were planning to introduce wellness benefits in 2016. A 2016 survey by the corporate benefits group, Workplace Options, however, reported that 55% of employed Americans said they had no access to employer-supported wellness programs. This suggests that many employees are either unaware of workplace fitness opportunities or do not know how to access them.
The association between workplace and fitness first gained widespread attention with a landmark 1953 study of London bus conductors. Compared to seated bus drivers, conductors, who spent their days walking up and down the stairs of double-decker buses collecting fares, had half the number of heart attacks. Since then, studies have consistently shown that rates of obesity, heart disease, and various other chronic diseases, as well as psychological stress, are higher in people with sedentary jobs. Recent studies indicate that even people who are physically active outside of the workplace are at increased risk of heart disease from sedentary occupations.
Employee fitness begins with the commute to work—walking or biking, exiting public transportation a few blocks early and walking the rest of the way, parking as far as possible from the workplace, or taking stairs instead of the elevator. During the workday, employees can walk as far and as fast as possible; for example, by conferring with coworkers in person rather than by phone or e-mail. Even standing while using the phone can burn calories. Many employees work out during lunch breaks or use shorter breaks for stretching or a brisk walk. Squeeze balls can tone the arms and hands while sitting at a desk. Resistance bands, hand weights, or other small fitness equipment can be kept in a drawer for use during meetings. Some employees may be able to replace their office chair with a firmly inflated fitness or stability ball to improve balance and tone core muscles while sitting and for exercise during breaks. Others can position their computer screens on stands and their keyboards on tables above a treadmill or use specially designed treadmill desks. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic estimated that if overweight workers walked while using their computers for 2–3 hours daily, they could lose 44–66 lb. (20–30 kg) in a year.
Social networks and peer-to-peer encouragement can be excellent ways to promote workplace fitness. Walking meetings can be arranged indoors or out.Lunchtime walks with coworkers or friendly fitness competitions can be organized outside the workplace hierarchy. The latter might involve wearing pedometers to count daily steps or logging time spent in physical activity.
Employees who travel for work should try to maintain the same fitness routine that they follow when at home. They should pack workout clothes, equipment, and exercise DVDs. Walking briskly through airport terminals between flights, walking up and down train cars, or doing laps around the ferryboat can add pedometer steps to travel. When driving for work, frequent stretching and walking breaks can add exercise and reduce stress. Hotels often have onsite or nearby fitness facilities, swimming pools, or hiking and running trails. Guests can use the stairs and walk the hallways.
Many employers provide employees with wearable fitness trackers, and some have even redesigned their workplaces to promote fitness. Office spaces can be designed to encourage walking. Some ergonomic desks function as simple weight machines with attached resistance bands. Standing workstations, exercise bikes attached to laptop stands, and treadmill desks are also available.
Walking meetings, known as walk-and-talk programs, or structured ten-minute exercise breaks, or instant recesses two or three times daily can promote workplace fitness. Some workplaces provide bicycles for lunchtime rides. Flexible scheduling can enable employees to work out when it is convenient, rather than just during lunch breaks. Workplaces without onsite fitness facilities can hold onsite workshops, seminars, classes, and other programs or bring in fitness, yoga, or tai chi instructors. An increasing number of employers subsidize or reimburse gym memberships for their employees. Some even conduct individual fitness counseling interventions. Such simple initiatives as allowing employees to wear sneakers or running shoes and other casual clothing at work have been shown to significantly increase the number of steps taken during the workday. Employer-sponsored sports teams for employees are a longstanding tradition that can be expanded to include walking and other exercise groups.
Workplace biometric screenings that include weight, body mass index (BMI), and blood glucose levels can help encourage participation in fitness programs. Fitness trackers and connected devices that transmit employee vital signs to a nurse or wellness coach may also be effective.
Some companies offer employees financial incentives for achieving physical activity goals or sponsor employee participation in charitable runs or walks, such as Race for the Cure. Others reduce employeepaid health insurance premiums or offer gift cards or discounts on fitness products or services in return for participation in fitness programs or health screenings. There are many simple incentives, such as providing scales, blood pressure machines, and other measuring tools in the workplace. Some businesses give daily awards for employees who park the farthest from the building or offer up to $1,500 per year in cash bonuses for meeting daily walking goals. Others institute employee challenges for using the stairs or reaching fitness goals. Activity challenges are popular with companies, because they are low-cost and tend to encourage high participation. Employers may receive discounts on health insurance costs based on employee participation or combined results.
Whereas large organizations may be able to afford investments in expensive office equipment, facilities, and programs, many low- or no-cost options are available for small businesses to encourage employee fitness. Various resources, both public and private, may help businesses and employers develop practices that encourage physical fitness. For example, the American Diabetes Association's Stop Diabetes @ Work program provides employers with resources for helping their employees prevent or manage diabetes, including physical fitness.
The National Prevention Strategy, released in June 2011, promotes workplace programs and policies for increasing employee physical fitness during the working day. These initiatives include:
Unfortunately, many workplace fitness initiatives fail or achieve only very modest success. Employee participation rates are generally below 10%. This is usually attributed to lack of employee engagement or inadequate employee motivation.
Although fitness trackers and connected devices can encourage employee participation and reduce health insurance costs, it is essential that the collected data be kept private and secure. Aggregate encrypted data should be transmitted directly to the health plan or a third-party provider, which then uses it to help the company assess the effectiveness of its programs. Individual employee data should never be available to management.
Fitness cheating is also a risk. For example, employees have been known to tape fitness trackers to power tools, pets, household appliances such as ceiling fans, or even a hamster wheel to boost the number of steps taken for workplace fitness challenges. One executive attached his tracker to his foot that he tapped throughout meetings. To thwart cheaters, some companies hold prize drawings for everyone who reaches personal goals rather than awarding winners. Step challenges also tend to favor marathon runners and short people who take more steps.
An employee-sponsored health and fitness challenge in Rochester, New York, eventually grew to involve 125,000 employees from more than 300 businesses and other organizations. The employees walked a total of 49 billion steps and consumed 20 million cups of fruits and vegetables. The key to the program's success appeared to be that it was both collaborative and competitive, as well as fun and social. The latter may be particularly important, because research demonstrates that behaviors— both healthy and unhealthy—spread through social networks at a surprisingly rapid speed. Therefore, behavior modification programs seem to be most successful when they occur within social networks and involve peer support rather than individual interventions.
It remains unclear why some initiatives to improve fitness in the workplace have achieved remarkable successes, whereas others have suffered from low employee participation and, at most, only temporary changes in behavior. Financial incentives, especially those that lower employee-paid healthcare premiums, and social networking strategies may hold the most promise. More research is needed to define the components that make for successful workplace fitness programs with high participation rates.
See also Obesity ; Pedometer ; Sitting ; Stretching .
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Margaret Alic, PhD