Exercising at Work

Finding time is always a challenge. It's just gotten easier.

From the WebMD Archives

April 24, 2000 (San Francisco) -- Until about six months ago, 38-year-old Marty Shaver, a supply manager at Motorola in Palmer, Texas, could have been a poster boy for the couch potato elite. Although he'd been an accomplished athlete in college, his grown-up responsibilities had gradually squeezed workout time from his schedule. His weight hovered about 30 pounds above what it had been during school, and his cholesterol level had crept above 200. He kept trying to exercise, but between his two small children, his demanding job, and a lengthy daily commute, his good intentions kept slipping away.

Shaver's situation, of course, is all too familiar to millions of working Americans. Currently only 15% of adults engage in the recommended 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week, according to the Surgeon General's "Healthy People 2000" report, issued earlier this year. Indeed, the only age group that's actually become more active during the past decade is people over 65 -- perhaps because they've left the time pressures of the workaday world behind.

But Shaver has gotten some help from a surprising ally: his employer. Motorola recently opened a fitness center on the first floor of his office building, and after just a few months, Shaver has become a veritable gym rat. When he's not putting in hour-long stints on the elliptical trainer, he can often be found exercising his competitive juices on the racquetball court. "It's a huge convenience," he says. "Instead of going down the stairs and straight out the door at the end of the day, I simply take a right at the bottom of those stairs and hit the gym for an hour."

The Surgeon General would certainly be pleased. In a recent unveiling of the "Healthy People 2010" national health promotion project (and on the heels of the dismal progress report on "Healthy People 2000"), David Satcher, MD, PhD, cited getting people moving as the number one public health goal for the next ten years. And the workplace, he said, should play a stronger role in this effort. More employers should "provide supportive worksite environments and policies that offer opportunities for employees to incorporate physical activity into their daily lives," he says.

Why put the onus on the workplace? "People spend more time at work than they do anywhere else," says Yvonne Ingram-Rankin, president of the Association for Worksite Health Promotion (AWHP), based in Northbrook, Ill. Indeed, she and other exercise experts say that corporate fitness programs are tailor-made for the reality of working Americans' lives.

"By far, the number one reason people give for not exercising is that they don't have enough time," says Richard Cotton, PhD, exercise physiologist and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. "To get someone to exercise, we've got to help them carve out the time. Having a gym at your fingertips does just that."

In fact, more and more companies these days are jumping on the fitness bandwagon. According to the Wellness Councils of America (WCA) based in Omaha, Neb., more than 81% of businesses with more than 50 employees now have some sort of health program. Such programs usually involve exercise promotion, though only small proportions include corporate gyms.

There's more in it for the employer than simply warm fuzzies. The cumulative benefit has been estimated at $500 to $700 per worker per year, according to an article published in the February 1999 issue of the journal The Physician and Sportsmedicine -- an amount that would certainly cover the cost of an in-house wellness program. A few private companies have reported similar benefits. In the early 1990s General Electric found that fitness program members reduced their health care costs by 38% in an 18-month period. DuPont Co. reported that each dollar invested in workplace health promotion yielded $1.42 over two years in lower absenteeism costs. And the Traveler's Corporation claimed a $3.40 return for every dollar invested in health promotion, amounting to a savings of $146 million in benefit costs.

In the current tight labor market, gyms and wellness programs also help attract and keep good employees, says Kurt Atherton, vice president of corporate operations at Club One in Santa Clara, Calif.; his company sets up fitness facilities and wellness programs. "To be considered a world-class employer, you have to compete. Having some kind of wellness facility is a valued amenity." (For more on how to convince your employer to promote workplace workouts, see Friendly Persuasion.)

When health-conscious employers install an on-site fitness center, it's an enormous plus for employees. Shaver, for instance, says that having the gym right there in the building even improves his commute time. "I don't have to sit in traffic to get to the gym," he says. "Instead, I spend time in the gym and then zip home to my family. When I get there, I don't need to set aside time to relax because I just did, by working out."

For Shaver, just a few months of effort have paid off with some great numbers of his own: his cholesterol has dropped into the healthy range and he's sloughed off over 20 pounds. He's even got a new identity: "S-H-A-V-E-R," he jokes, "like shaving off the pounds." he says.

Elizabeth B. Krieger is an associate editor for WebMD.