Science / Medicine : Corporate America Makes an Effort to Shape Up

Corporate America is becoming increasingly interested in health and fitness, according to two very different surveys published recently. One focused on work-site wellness programs; the other looked at the health attitudes and practices of large companies.

About two out of three large companies now have at least one type of wellness program, according to a survey of more than 1,300 firms with 50 or more employees published in January in the American Journal of Public Health. Slightly more than half of the activities were started in the last five years.

Most commonly the programs involved smoking cessation, followed by health risk appraisal (to determine risk of heart disease and other disorders), back care, stress management, exercise, blood pressure control, nutrition counseling and weight control. Most firms offered two or three of these activities, usually free and on company time. Larger companies and those located in the western United States tended to have the most programs. The survey did not ask about programs designed to protect against accidents and other on-the-job hazards.

Do such programs work? It's not always easy to tell. Some studies, notably those concerning Johnson & Johnson's 11-year-old Live for Life program, suggest that these activities do help cut medical costs, reduce turnover and absenteeism, and help workers quit smoking. Apparently many employees do make use of the exercise facilities provided, thus improving their cardiovascular fitness and possibly boosting morale and productivity.

Corporate wellness programs are frequently started when a fitness-minded chief executive officer takes charge or when other executives become enthusiastic about what they are doing to protect their own health.

In Fit for Success, Dr. James Rippe, director of the exercise physiology laboratory at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, surveyed more than 1,100 top executives about their attitudes and behavior regarding health and fitness. Only 37% of the executives responded, so bear in mind that this sampling is probably not representative--that is, the less-healthy executives may have been less likely to respond.

Based on this highly select, elite group, Rippe concludes that "the days of stressed-out, overweight, two-martini-lunch corporate-types" are gone. Here are some of his findings:

* 64% of the executives (average age slightly over 50, and nearly all of them male) exercise three or more times a week, compared to 20% of all adult Americans. And most of the exercisers include some aerobic activity, such as jogging, brisk walking, or cycling, in their regimens.

* Only 10% of them still smoke. A whopping 61% of them had quit.

* A nearly unanimous 98% rank their overall health as good, very good, or excellent. Three outof four of them say that they were ill fewer than three days in the past year.

* Two-thirds of them know their blood pressure (which averages an excellent 124/79).

* 90% say they closely watch their diet. More than 60% try to restrict salt intake and cholesterol. Surprisingly, though, only one-third knew their cholesterol level.

Many of these executives attribute at least part of their success and stamina to their fitness practices and the measures they take to protect their overall health. Looked at another way, it may be that the same abilities that make them successful in business also make them good at managing their health.

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