Workplace Workouts: Combating Employee Obesity

As the obesity epidemic continues to take a toll on our nation’s health, smart companies are recognizing that active, fit employees also are happy, productive employees.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity in the United States has increased dramatically over the past 2 decades. Obesity, which can lead to diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease or other ailments, can affect someone's well-being both at home and on the job. While some employers attempt to combat obesity by hosting weight-loss competitions — many based on the NBC hit show, Biggest Loser — the solution to helping workers get (and stay) in shape goes beyond a simple contest.

Companies like Canton, Ohio-based Arthur Middleton Capital Holdings Inc. understand that obesity can have a significant impact not only on a work force's health, happiness and productivity, but also on the corporate bottom line. Kimberlea Guerra, Arthur Middleton human resource benefits manager, suggests corporate wellness initiatives can improve productivity, morale and a company's fiscal health.

“If you don't incorporate it in the company, then you're going to be paying for it in the back end from the health care premiums,” she explains. “If you're successful, hopefully you obtain a healthier work force. It makes [employees] more productive, it makes them happier, it makes them more energetic.”

When Arthur Middleton held a Biggest Loser contest for its employees last year, it wasn't a last-ditch effort to create a slimmer work force. True, the 200 employees who participated lost a total of 703 pounds, but the contest's real purpose was to get employees thinking about their lifestyle choices. In the end, that can spell happier, healthier workers.

TEAMWORK

To help employees stay fit, Arthur Middleton maintains an onsite, 24/7 wellness center that features treadmills, elliptical machines, bicycles, weights, blood pressure monitoring and more. Two full-time wellness center instructors help guide Arthur Middleton workers through exercise programs. Employees needn't carve out a large period of time to work out, either; the company's “10-in-10” options allows workers to visit the wellness center during a 15-minute break for a guided exercise session.

“After the workout, they feel less stressed,” says Deena Beke, wellness instructor at Arthur Middleton. “Just being out of the workplace for 10 minutes or a lunch hour [results in] an overall positive increase in their attitudes.”

That change in attitude, Beke says, can be contagious, which is all the more reason why workplace wellness initiatives can benefit the company as a whole: They promote teamwork. Arthur Middleton's Biggest Loser contest, for example, gave employees the opportunity to compete as teams, which helped build camaraderie.

Simonton Windows, a vinyl window and patio door manufacturer, also embraced teamwork when more than 300 employees lost a collective 1,470 pounds during a 6-week weight-loss contest last summer. Simonton workers participated in teams of two and created fun names to lighten up the contest — names like Fat Blasters, Tons of Fun, Baby Got Back and Thin to Win.

“When I spoke with teams afterward, I learned from most of them that having a team made all the difference,” says Kathy Ziprik, Simonton public relations representative. “Instead of grabbing a fast snack for lunch, they went out and they walked the track together. It was definitely a smart thing to do in teams.”

INCENTIVES TO LOSE

While many companies offer cash prizes, gift cards, time off or other awards to weight-loss contest winners, Guerra and Ziprik both stress that achieving health improvements is the true reward for employees.

“I think any of them would tell you that the overall prize was meeting their personal goals and doing something that made a lot of sense and was good for them,” Ziprik says of Simonton employees. “And these people served as inspiration for others. Since the contest ended, we've seen an accelerated interest in wellness and taking care of themselves.”

David Brock, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise physiology at the University of Vermont and director of the Physical Activity Laboratory, argues that incentivizing employees to get fit is a successful strategy. Brock recently conducted a 16-week pilot study of obese, sedentary employees. The study offered generous incentives — approximately $1,200 if all requirements were met — to the 20 participants if they increased their physical activity levels.

Brock describes the study as “wildly successful” and said that every participant met the goal. By the end of the study, participating employees were walking about 35 miles a week — up from only 1-2 miles a week. This shows, he explains, that significant financial incentives can help workers become healthier, which in turn is a victory for employers. In addition to reducing health care costs, these programs can increase worker productivity, reduce costly sick days and help employees be more focused and “present” (and as a result, perhaps, safer) on the job.

Brock stresses, however, that incentives should be tied to physical activity instead of the amount of weight lost.

“People can lose weight in a variety of ways, and many of those ways are not healthy. You really should place the incentives on actual behavior,” he explains. “Even in absence of weight loss, if you can get people to become physically active, that has big benefits in terms of health. So place benefits on the behavior rather than the body type.”

Above all, Brock emphasizes that incentives must be large enough to make an impact. A free t-shirt or baseball cap is not going to be enough to compel employees to make major lifestyle changes. He also suggests that employers plan to incentivize workers for the long term instead of during brief weight-loss contests or programs.

“The idea to only [provide incentives] for 6 weeks and then remove incentives is not a sustainable strategy,” Brock says. “There's hard, empirical numbers out there that show if you can get your employee base to do these things, it will save you money.”

BEYOND THE SCALE

Combating workplace obesity doesn't mean that companies should obsess over their employees' weight, however.

“Obesity in itself is a physical trait. It doesn't necessarily cause disease. It's the behaviors beneath it — [lack of] physical activity and poor diet,” Brock says. “I would take the emphasis off weight.”

Ziprik also advises companies to avoid focusing solely on weight

“It's not about somebody's weight, it's about their health,” she explains. “You can't just say, ‘Let's go have a contest and lose weight.’ You need to educate people on why they should lose weight, what their ideal weight is, what are good exercises for them … It's an encompassing program.”

Beke, meanwhile, acknowledges that the challenge in any wellness initiative is prompting employees to make the time for fitness in their busy lives.

“That's challenging in exercise programs, period,” she says. “But it doesn't have to be an hour a day, it can just be a few short workouts throughout the day.”

While an onsite corporate wellness center can help ensure employees make the time to work out, not every company can invest in a gym or fitness instructors. Instead, companies can consider adding a walking trail, using an empty conference room for yoga classes, encouraging walking meetings and more.

CREATING A CORPORATE WELLNESS PROGRAM

Guerra advises any company interested in exploring wellness program options to first examine its health care cost trends. If issues like obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes are recurring among employees, corporate wellness initiatives may be the answer.

“These are things that could potentially be controlled without medication if they put a workout plan into their regime,” she explains. “No, it's not overnight, but it's a commitment management needs to make.”

Some companies may need to seek out a third party for help. Simonton, for example, has a relationship with the consultants Wellness Coaches USA, which ran the weight-loss challenge, as well as Bravo Wellness. Arthur Middleton, meanwhile, has the support of full-time wellness personnel.

“You need dedicated wellness instructors,” stresses Guerra. “You need somebody who has the vision and passion for wellness. If you just hire somebody in who has no experience with it, who doesn't eat, breathe and sleep the health and wellness ideal for them and their family, then it's not going to rub off or be portrayed throughout the organization. If you have a dedicated team, then you're able to get people more motivated.”

Small employers, who may not have the resources to offer significant financial incentives, have options, too. If company leadership is unable to reward employees with money, they can offer longer breaks, paid time off or similar prizes.

“A wellness program can be implemented on a variety of different scales,” Beke points out. “It can start with people meeting at lunch and going for a walk. It doesn't have to be full-scale right away.”

Finally, wellness consultants can do more than motivate employees themselves — they may even be able to convince management that these types of initiatives are good for business.

“That's their job, to get you excited, get upper management excited,” Guerra adds. “If it executes an idea into reality, I'd absolutely recommend [a consultant]. It's a good investment.”

Above all, the goal is to make workers more aware of their lifestyle choices and, ideally, make improvements that create positive results for their health and well-being. According to Ziprik, the most rewarding aspect of Simonton's weight-loss challenge was watching as employees continued their healthy habits even after the contest was over.

“Companies who take a step forward in helping their employees create healthier lifestyles are the winners. They really are,” says Ziprik. “Active, healthy employees are going to lead better lives. That means they're going to be better employees. The ripple effect of healthy lifestyle choices goes far beyond the workplace.”

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