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 one…. [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.

On-Location Facilities

The most immediately accessible solution to employee exercise is a fitness area built right onsite at the office. Mark Porterfield, a project architect with Lothrop Associates LLC, a Valhalla, New York-based architecture and interior design firm that has worked on a number of corporate fitness projects, said that the basic and essential features of an onsite corporate fitness facility include a circuit-training area, a cardio area and a locker room.

A closet with an elliptical trainer stuffed in it doesn't count, he said. "Unless you're a large company that can provide a high-quality facility from a design and user standpoint…people that are really serious may gravitate toward a private facility," he added.

Your investment does no good if it's not being used. Plus, those who will work out elsewhere are not really your focus. It's the employees who are not active that you'll want to lure in with the sheer magnificence of your exercise palace! In Porterfield's experience, about 1,000 employees are needed to make an onsite center worth the investment, which can be as much as $2 million for a 6,000-square-foot facility—plus operating costs after that.

Begin by assessing the overall amount of space available, he suggested. And determine how many bodies are expected to use the center at a time. "That gives you a way to size locker rooms, which are generally what drives [the design of] a corporate fitness center," he said. "Those are the least flexible spaces because of ADA requirements and plumbing requirements."

After you've allotted space to your locker rooms, be sure there's enough space for a weight-training circuit. "If you can't fit 12 to 13 machines in, you're sunk," he explained. "Cardio equipment is also important, but the number of machines can be adjusted up or down relatively easily."

From there, if you still have funds and ideas left, creativity can take the lead. "Higher-end facilities tend to follow the same trends as private facilities," Porterfield said. For example, spinning has been a popular activity in the past few years, and although a corporate center may not be large enough to support a dedicated spinning room, stationary bikes can be stored in the back of an aerobics room and pulled out as needed. "I've seen boxing equipment put in—a heavy bag and a speed bag," he added. Other options include a retail area to sell company-themed T-shirts and water bottles or a small spa area to offer massages. "The larger the company and the more employees, the more they have to work with," Porterfield said.

However, no matter how large the company, swimming pools don't usually make the onsite cut as they're expensive to build and operate and find space for. Plus, you can only fit so many people in a lap pool, and many employees will prefer not to return from their lunch break smelling like chlorine. Saunas and whirlpools usually get the ax for similar reasons, although they might occasionally be incorporated into the locker room or spa area, Porterfield noted. But corporations usually don't err on the side of too much luxury. "The idea is to get people in and out," he said. "If you're running a company you want them back at their desk in an hour after working out at lunch."

Yet some companies have begun looking beyond the lunchtime workout to create a more recreation-oriented corporate culture. "Many of the corporations we work with have onsite sand volleyball courts, baseball fields or basketball courts," said Club One's VanDerLuit. "When new facilities are built, they put in a soccer field…[or] they want a great lawn for multipurpose use."

Besides providing the needed space and equipment, the next challenge of an onsite corporate fitness facility is keeping it running safely and effectively. Fortunately, this is where management companies come in. Mansfield said that Corporate Fitness Works has clients of all sizes—from 1,000-square-foot workout areas to 70,000-square-foot fitness complexes. And hiring an outside firm has benefits beyond not having to mess with something outside the company's area of expertise.

"Employees feel more comfortable knowing it's an outside provider who has access to their health data and records," Mansfield said. Although companies do want feedback on who's using the fitness facilities and the health of their employee population, "we only give out aggregate reports," she said. Another advantage of outsourcing is the array of programs and services experts can offer. "We have a network of information based on all the clients we serve, so we can determine best practices and put them into effect," Mansfield said.

Outside staffing also ensures the fitness center will be open at convenient times. "Typically a corporate fitness center is open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday," VanDerLuit said. "Very few are open less, but some are open more." Staffing options range from a one-man or -woman show to a full team that can provide group exercise classes, health screenings, "lunch and learns," sports and recreation programming and personal training, she noted. An added benefit of partnering with Club One is that the company also owns commercial health clubs, so the corporate contract may allow employees and their families to use offsite facilities on the weekends or to supplement their workout options (as many times security factors make onsite corporate fitness facilities strictly for employee use during business hours).

Partnerships With Offsite Centers

For smaller companies and others without the space or finances to create an onsite fitness center, partnering with a park district or private health club may be the answer. "Research shows that companies that enroll their employees in a pre-paid pass plan at a fitness center experience lower illness-related absences, more productive and less stressed employees, lower health care costs and reduced turnover rates," according to the Prince William County Park Authority in Virginia.

This Park Authority has partnered with both the local government and local school district via just such a corporate pass program, so employees of these entities—and their families (no security issues here)—can purchase a pass to one of the Park Authority's two fitness centers at a 20-percent discount. They're then eligible to participate in all the Park Authority's program offerings—from sports teams to day camps—at the member rate, plus use the full range of health and wellness amenities.

At the Chinn Aquatics and Fitness Center in Woodbridge, Va., a 60,000-square-foot, two-level facility, these amenities include weight rooms, a cardio area, racquetball courts, a gymnasium and a big dance studio for all types of aerobics, Pilates, yoga and other classes, explained Dianne Cabot, public relations manager. The Chinn Center also offers a pool, sauna and whirlpool, as well as personal trainers, a masseuse, a nursery and an assortment of camp programs. And, the Chinn Center happens to be directly across the street from the big county government building, making it practically onsite for these employees.

The other option is the Sharron Baucom - Dale City Recreation Center in Dale City, Va., which is located closer to where many of these partner companies' employees live. Slightly smaller at 41,000 square feet, it still includes weight rooms, circuit training, cardio workout machines, a basketball gym, racquetball courts and a pool. "We also have countless fitness trails to run and bike through and a huge sports league group," Cabot said. There's been increased local interest in playing cricket, so the Park Authority is even considering putting in a cricket field. Both centers are open seven days a week and have early-morning and late-night hours of operation.

"It's a big investment in equipment and training and certifications [to have an onsite facility]," Cabot said. So for many corporations, a partnership may be the better fitness option. "All of our fitness staff are highly trained and experienced…[so] you know when you come here the staff and equipment will be top-notch," Cabot added. "Even if you've been sitting on couch for 40 years and are not so top-notch, they'll help you."

Whole-Employee Fitness

Another way to look big-picture at the health and wellness of corporate employees is to consider the kinds of training they're provided. While a team-building jaunt to an area ropes course might seem like an activity for only the fittest of workers, in fact these exercises are designed so all can participate.

"It's harder to get people out of their comfort zone," said Gregory J. Huber, president of Challenge Discovery Companies, based in Glen Allen, Va. "But you don't have to be a fitness guru. The industry is incredibly safe, and there's never any pressure or coercion to make people do things. That's where the enlightenment and value can be. People do things they thought they couldn't, and with that confidence they can go on to do other things—whether that's a physical activity or confronting a co-worker about an issue. It all works together."

Challenge Discovery Companies boasts an impressive list of corporate clients from Capital One to SuperValu, which recently included team-building activities in their annual leadership meeting that this year focused on all kinds of employee fitness, from physical to financial. And this sort of enlightening experience can also come to you through Challenge Discovery's consulting arm and onsite-activity options, which take their hands-on learning approach and create team-building activities that can be facilitated anywhere—as a playful break during a national sales meeting or as a more serious session at the office.

Besides instilling confidence and promoting positive relationships between your employees (plus getting them out of their seats and moving around a little), these activities are great for reinforcing work-related skills. "We take what you'd normally write on a whiteboard and put it in your hands," Huber said. "[The learning is] occurring through experience, and [people] remember 10 percent of what they see and hear, but 90 percent of what they do." Most in the corporate world already know (at least in theory) how to communicate and problem-solve and be leaders, Huber noted. "Our job is to reawaken people, to easily and quickly remind them with a different slant and perspective so the light bulb goes on," he explained. "We're reawakening things that are dormant because of other work pressures. [These pressures] drive us into behaviors that allow us to get the project done without evaluating the process we're using to get to the end result. We may step on toes and be less effective because we're not asking for help."

So for a full mental tune-up of your workforce, with a dose of friendly challenge and a bit of physical activity thrown in, a trip to the ropes course or a day of onsite team-building might be just what fits the whole-health bill.

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.

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