Workplace Workouts: Stepping off the Corporate Treadmill, and onto a Real One

LIFE AT WORK

At outdoor gear company Patagonia, employees have been known to cut out of work to go surfing. Another very well-known tech giant scatters its campus with athletics fields to keep people moving. And at health care provider Kaiser Permanente, workers can use a bike-share program to move about the company’s campus or clear their heads with a trail ride.

In other words, if you’re looking to stay fit while on the job, you’ve got a lot more options than just a standing desk these days.

Not every company offers personalized yoga classes or an in-office climbing wall, of course, but a substantial majority of employers consider workplace wellness and fitness programs an important perk, says Stefan Gingerich, a senior research analyst at StayWell, a Yardley, Pa.-based company that helps employers design and implement such programs.

“Workplace wellness or well-being programs are quite common,” Gingerich says, citing a recent survey of employers by Fidelity and the National Business Group on Health that found that “86 percent of companies have [employee] well-being as part of their business strategy.”

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Studies show that sitting for long periods of time can have harmful health effects.

These programs vary in scope and composition, he says, but most include aspects designed to tackle common health factors like exercise, nutrition and stress management.

Awareness of the benefits of workplace exercise has spiked in recent years as studies have found that long periods of sitting can be detrimental to people’s health. Much of this work has been led by Mayo Clinic physician Dr. James Levine, and so it’s perhaps only appropriate that the nonprofit medical research group provides employees with an online portal for tracking their health and fitness, as well as subsidized memberships to on-site or nearby fitness centers. Mayo’s Worksite Wellness Champion Program offers employees work site presentations covering topics ranging from diet planning to stretching exercises.

It’s important not to confuse an incentive program with an employee health and well-being strategy.

The trend toward incorporating exercise into the workplace isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. For instance, in the U.K., software firm PCA Predict has taken advantage of its location near the River Severn to offer employees kayaks that they can use to paddle about when they need a break.

In Sweden, employers provide workers with Friskvårdskuponger, tax-free “wellness vouchers” that can be used for a variety of exercise activities like gym and dance classes, team sports and swimming, as well as massage, yoga, and weight and nutrition counseling.

Gingerich says that looking ahead, he sees a trend of companies expanding beyond a focus on just physical health to a “broader definition of ‘health’ or ‘well-being’ that encompasses not only physical well-being, but also emotional well-being, mental well-being, financial well-being and more.”

He adds that he expects to see companies incorporate technologies like digital sleep and activity trackers that can help employees set and pursue health goals not just while they’re at work, but around the clock.

Regardless of a company’s exact offerings, the most important factor in determining whether workplace exercise initiatives are effective is whether or not the organization has established “a culture of health and has strategic communications to support the programs,” Gingerich says.

“It’s important not to confuse an incentive program with an employee health and well-being strategy,” he says. “Simply offering financial incentives for healthy activities or behavior won’t improve the overall health of employees in the long term.”

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