Feature Article - September 2008
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A Corporate Affair

Making a Fit Business

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Health and Wellness Programming

A third option for encouraging employees to get healthy doesn't necessarily require a fitness center at all. Instead, try "creating general fitness opportunities within the organization that will lead to activity," Mansfield suggested. These could include walking programs or incentive programs that encourage physical activity such as getting outside with the kids. Let employees know what activities are available in their communities—local fun runs and walks, for example. Or set up a corporate Olympics event to inspire competition among employees or even between your company and others in the area. And, think beyond just exercise to a big-picture view of health and wellness.

"HR [human resource] departments now are integrations of all the services and components that help target employees' health," Mansfield said. "You want to have fitness and physical activities, disease management, wellness, nutrition… We key in on the prevention side, how to keep employees healthy."

It's also important to know your target audience: those who are not currently healthy and active. "That's the challenge," Mansfield said. "People who are active and have been don't need motivation, but how do we get those who aren't doing anything? What programs and services are going to attract them?"

This can be an overwhelming prospect, but you can contract with experts to help. Many fitness center management companies also offer consulting services and staff for onsite programs even without a fitness center. Club One arranges for medical professionals to conduct onsite health screenings, and Corporate Fitness Works can provide expert knowledge on topics from developing a personalized exercise plan to how to use fitness equipment safely to facilitating group exercise and helping with weight-management programs. In addition, there may be technology-based options that can reach employees right in their cubicles.

Club One has developed Be Well, an online diet and exercise program. Employees log on and complete a mini health profile, then Club One uses the aggregate data to provide the corporation with a look at the top five health risks for their employee population. The next step is creating targeted programming to address those specific issues, VanDerLuit explained. In addition, "once employees complete the profile, they receive a specific wellness plan and can track their activity on a log," she added.

Be Well provides suggested workouts for almost any sport or activity the person enjoys, from cycling to golf to skiing. And if weight loss is an area of interest, the companion Be Lean program can help by providing a food log, meal planning assistance and easily printable shopping lists. Be Lean also gives employees the option of joining an eight-week program that uses an armband to track movements and calorie-burning throughout the day. "They have access to a Web site where they can track calories in and calories out," VanDerLuit said. "Then they know where they are at any given time, and if they need to take a walk around the block."

Whether a big financial investment or something more incremental seems right for your company, and whether high-tech or low-tech seems to fit best with your corporate culture, the key to encouraging employee fitness and health is just that: encouragement. "Incentive programs are big right now," VanDerLuit said. "You have points associated with different activities, usually behavior changes." For instance, employees might earn points for taking the stairs rather than the elevator, or wearing a pedometer and walking 10,000 steps a day. Physical activities like gardening or biking to work or playing a game of dodgeball at lunch could also count.

Companies are at a variety of levels when it comes to what exactly these incentives might be, Mansfield added. "Some companies offer small items, like water bottles or T-shirts, to encourage employees, all the way up to working into the employee benefits plan that those who are physically active a certain number of days get a discount on their premiums."

But starting small is OK. Form teams and strike up a weight-loss competition or healthy recipe cook-off with a frozen yogurt party or afternoon outdoors as a reward. "Even small incentives are powerful," Gilliam said. "Let's be honest: Walking every day and forgoing your coffee and doughnut break can be a drag. People like working toward a concrete reward. Be creative. Make it fun."

VanDerLuit said that somewhere in the maze of Congress is a bill intended to give companies themselves financial incentives to offer wellness programs and onsite fitness to their employees. So we could be creeping closer to a win-win situation for everyone. Not that we aren't there already. "It's a given that you'll save money in healthcare costs [by implementing corporate fitness programs]," Gilliam said. "But you might also find yourself profiting in less tangible ways. People who successfully lose weight often gain a huge boost in self-esteem. They become happier and more confident, which makes them more effective at work, as well as at home. Plus, when you commit to becoming a healthier workplace, you're creating a culture that talented people will want to be a part of in the future."

So perhaps corporate fitness is still an amenity after all.