Working Out at Work

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Working Out at Work

By Carol Sorgen
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Too busy or just too plain tired to work out after you get home from the office? More and more businesses are building fitness opportunities into the workplace as a way to help employees stay fit, healthy, and -- not least of all-- happy. The hope is that this will, in turn, make good business sense, as well.

"If we concentrate on our co-workers, they'll take care of our customers," says Art Friedson, vice president of co-worker services for CDW Computer Centers, headquartered in Vernon Hills, Illinois. CDW built a state-of-the-art gym for its employees. The 20,000-square-foot facility houses, among other things, a swimming pool, racquetball court, fitness floor, and all the high-tech exercise machines you could ask for. On-site trainers, nutritionists, and massage therapists are available, dance and yoga classes are offered, and you can even join a golf, volleyball, or basketball league.

"The center is convenient and cheap," says Friedson. "For those who want to take advantage of it, it's a great perk."

CDW is not alone in offering a fitness program to its employees. According to the 2000 Benefits Survey produced by the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Virginia, 24% of the 606 companies that responded to the survey provide a fitness center or gym subsidy to employees, and 19% actually have an on-site fitness center.

Making Fitness Convenient

"Regular exercise is clearly linked to improved health," says Dr. Peter Snell, an exercise physiologist and assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Still, Snell adds, about 60% of adults do not exercise, and only 25% get the recommended amount. Exercise recommendations range from 30 to 60 minutes a day -- on most, if not all, days of the week. Forty percent of adults who don't exercise say they don't have enough time.

"The availability of facilities to exercise at the work site removes many of the barriers to exercise," says Snell. These include

  • Finding time
  • Being self-conscious at public health clubs
  • Safety
  • Convenience
  • Social atmosphere
  • Weather conditions
  • Expense

Having a place to exercise during lunch can be a real bonus especially for women with children, who may find it difficult to exercise before or after work, says Snell.

Not all companies can afford a full-service fitness center, but that doesn't mean they're not providing some fitness options. At Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin, Elaine Coll, professor emeritus of physical education, organized a faculty-staff noontime workout called "Ultimate Fitness." The idea originally started with a volleyball coach who began the program for physical education students. When the coach moved away, a number of faculty and staff who had been "auditing" the program were left, well, a bit less fit.

So Coll stepped up to the plate. She leads Ripon faculty and staff in an exercise routine that includes a 5-minute warm-up and then a circuit of ten to 12 stations, each of which focuses on an upper- or lower-body exercise or an aerobic exercise. After each station, the workers run one lap around the gym to the next station, and so on, until all stations have been visited. This is followed by a 10-minute stretch-and-cool-down period.

All this goes on to some "really ghastly music," says Coll, "but we have a great time."

Participation Is Key

Workplace exercise and health programs may seem like a great benefit, but do they really work? Apparently the jury's still out.

According to Roy Shephard, PhD, professor emeritus of applied physiology on the University of Toronto's faculty of physical education and health, work-site exercise and health programs are widely believed to be a way to keep employees healthy, thereby increasing a company's productivity while controlling health insurance costs.

Participation in work-site wellness programs can yield a variety of health benefits, Shephard writes in a February 1999 article, "Do Work-Site Exercise and Health Programs Work?" (published in the journal The Physician and Sportsmedicine): The potential benefits include:

  • Weight loss
  • Increased cardiovascular health
  • Increased muscle strength
  • Increased flexibility
  • Improved mood
  • Lower medical insurance claims

But Shephard, who is also a past president of the ACSM, also reports that "few, if any, programs have delivered all of the expected benefits." The reason, according to his research, is that most employees don't join them.

That certainly doesn't seem to be the case at CDW Computer Centers, however, where about 1,000 of the company's main-campus 1,800 employees (there are another 900 in other locations) take advantage of CDW's on-site fitness center.

"Our co-workers love it," says Friedson. "It gives them the opportunity to get together in a relaxed setting." An added bonus, says Friedson, is that working out is becoming "contagious."

Friedson is well aware that company-sponsored fitness programs are thought to contain medical costs by keeping employees healthy and fit, but he himself has no measurable figures to back that up. It doesn't really matter to him though. "We're really more interested in keeping our co-workers engaged, motivated, and happy. We don't focus on whether we're saving a dollar or two per person on sick time."

Originally published May 21, 2001.
Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD, October 2002.

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