Feature Article - September 2008
Find a printable version here

A Corporate Affair

Making a Fit Business

By Jessica Royer Ocken


en years ago, in the midst of the dot-com frenzy, corporations offered their employees a place to exercise in much the same way they offered them a foosball table in the conference room, a jeans-and-sneakers dress code and all the energy drinks they could guzzle down. "It was really all about corporate fitness centers being an attraction and retention tool for employees because the market was so competitive," explained Robyn VanDerLuit, director of worksite health & fitness for Club One, a San Francisco-based fitness center management firm. "If the company next door had one, they had to build oneā€¦. [I]t was just an amenity for employees."

Fast-forward to today and corporate fitness centers are perhaps an even hotter commodity, but the reasons for their presence have shifted dramatically. "Now it's very much about lowering healthcare costs," VanDerLuit said. "There's more value on wellness and fitness. Companies are beginning to recognize how critical it is to have healthy employees: lower healthcare costs, increased productivity and morale, reduced absenteeism, and the value of 'presenteeism,' when employees are truly mentally and physically present."

It's no wonder these factors have begun to catch employers' attention. Recent studies have noted that not only are a greater number of new hires obese (39 percent in 2007 vs. 29 percent in 2000), but "normal weight" employees decreased from 33 percent of the workforce in 2000 to 24 percent in 2007. (Both stats are from an analysis of the Industrial Physical Capability Services database.) At the same time, as everyone knows, healthcare costs are on the way up. "A company with just 500 employees will spend nearly $1 million more in added healthcare costs in 2010 compared with 2005," reported corporate fitness expert Thomas B. Gilliam, Ph.D., co-author and creator of the Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy book and corporate wellness program.

However, in a recent Opinion Research Corporation survey of 700 U.S. office workers, 80 percent said exercise had positively affected or would positively affect their well-being, and 78 percent said it has or would improve their productivity at work. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed said the main reason they did not exercise was that their employer did not provide a place to work out at the office.

More and more companies are getting that message. Club One has been in the business of corporate fitness since 1991, when they started with one corporate management contract. Now they have more than 60 throughout the United States and Canada, and their clients include eBay, Honda, Motorola, AOL, Chevron and an assortment of business parks.

But there's not just one solution. Encouraging employees toward health, wellness and a more active lifestyle can take a variety of forms. "Some [companies] build onsite fitness facilities, or want to determine if that will be an effective route," said Megan Mansfield, director of business development for Corporate Fitness Works, a Montgomery Village, Maryland-based fitness center management and consulting firm. "Others don't have the space or resources for that, so they're looking for other options that will meet their needs." These options fall generally into the three categories discussed here, and should be adaptable to get employees up and moving at a company of any size.