Between the sheet-cake birthday parties and hours-long, cookie-fueled management meetings, office work has a way of undermining all our plans to live healthfully. Americans spend nearly nine hours at work each day — and our sedentary jobs wreak havoc on our bodies.
Three-quarters of adults get little or no activity daily, according to Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and obesity accounts for 63 million physician office visits each year. Even for active people, sitting all day increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Many corporations are now encouraging employees to move more during the workday: In an April survey by the corporate benefits group Workplace Options, 36% of employees said their jobs offered perks such as wellness coaches, on-site health screenings and fitness programs. And 70% of Fortune 200 companies offer physical fitness programs, according to the National Business Group on Health, with many saving on healthcare as a result.
“We’ve reached the point where doing nothing is unacceptable because people are really sick,” Levine said. “It is bizarre and inexplicable that we’ve gravitated into this crunched up, chair-based way of living.”
Levine has become a cheerleader for workplace fitness. In 2007, he popularized the idea of treadmill desks that allow the user to burn calories while chatting on the phone or checking email. He now consults on corporate wellness with companies across the country. Money, he says, is the main consideration for corporate leaders deciding on fitness programs. But small budgets aren’t necessarily a limitation, he added: “A small company with a small budget can do well if the will is great.”
Some, Levine said, have adopted low-budget measures such as holding walking meetings or positioning printers farther from desks. Others have secured art gallery memberships so that workers can spend lunch breaks taking in Bonnard rather than the buffet.
In the intermediate budget range, options include hiring yoga teachers or fitness trainers to work with employees one day a week. More resource-rich organizations might have a few walking desks or an on-site health staff.
Geographically blessed companies are especially apt to weave hardcore physical activities into the workday. At the Ventura offices of the outdoor apparel manufacturer Patagonia, the company’s flex-time policy means employees can go running, biking or surfing in the middle of the workday, and nearly all of them do.
Showers and a wet suit rack make it easy for employees to clean up after a lunchtime surf. The “board room” is literally a room full of surfboards.
“These outdoor pursuits are a big reason why we all work here,” said Julie Armour, a textile designer with the company. “You make your own schedule and everyone agrees to be responsible for themselves.”
An outdoorsy spirit is to be expected given that Patagonia’s founder, rock climber Yvon Chouinard, wrote a book titled “Let My People Go Surfing.” But geekier industries are also making fitness a priority.
Rally Software in Boulder, Colo., has on-site yoga, reimbursements for health clubs and employee-organized groups for rock climbing and other activities. The company also provides bikes for employees to ride on nearby trails during lunchtime.
“People cherish their time to get out and blow off steam,” said company representative Lara Vacante. “A lot of our execs have time blocked off for their daily runs, and we don’t schedule over that time.”
At pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, thousands of employees have enrolled in workshops targeting physical and mental health. The programs demonstrate workouts in the company gym and cover such basics as eating right and taking activity breaks away from the computer. More than one-third of employees surveyed three to 12 months after they complete the program say they’ve experienced “very significant improvements” in their physical performance.
“It’s made a massive impact for me,” said GlaxoSmithKline scientist Susan Barnes. “I take more walks at lunch. I have energy to do things outside of work.”
Employees at the pharmaceutical company are also encouraged to incorporate exercise throughout the day: After learning about Levine’s research, the company installed a bank of treadmill desks that allow employees to take turns walking while they work.
Treadmill desks, of course, are pricey: At more than $4,000 for the popular models, they can be too expensive for some businesses and workers, not to mention bulky. Wellness coach Dr. Cynthia Ackrill opted, instead, to outfit her office with the $230 FitDesk — essentially an exercise bicycle, attached to a laptop stand. She bought it for its relatively portable size, and generally rides it for spurts of about 15 minutes several times a day while she works.
“It doesn’t replace all the benefits of being outside on a gorgeous day on a bike,” she said, “but I can get into something on the computer and [find that] more exercise time has gone by than I realize.”
Another budget option is an ergonomic desk chair that has stretchy rubber bands attached and functions as a rudimentary weight machine, made by the Menlo Park company GymyGym. Producer Jonathon Stewart of Los Angeles-based Atticus Entertainment bought chairs for himself and his six employees. He said it helps combat stiffness in his back and shoulders — and that it’s something of a conversation piece.
“It’s funny to glance out over the office and see someone doing triceps extensions while they’re on a phone call,” Stewart said.
Even companies with tiny fitness budgets can enact schemes that see big health gains. Dr. Toni Yancey, a professor of health sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health, developed an exercise program that requires nothing more than structured 10-minute work breaks. During the workday, taking three such breaks — which involve moves such as marching in place and simple shoulder presses — adds up to the 30 minutes of activity recommended by the U.S. surgeon general.
Yancey has distributed DVDs with these “Instant Recess” exercises to about 150 small nonprofit and government organizations in L.A. over the last few years. She’s studying the effects of the program with these workers and will release her findings in 2013.
Yancey, like other wellness experts, emphasizes that the directive to get moving has to come from the company’s leadership.
“It’s about structure,” she said. “There needs to be a policy in place that every time we have a meeting that lasts an hour or more, we’re going to take a 10-minute recess break. The opportunity should be offered every day, day in and day out.”
Executives shouldn’t fear that physical activity would distract employees from work, experts say. A number of studies have shown that exercise breaks improve productivity.
Yancey lauds the retailer L.L. Bean for its policy of three stretch breaks a day, which add up to 15 minutes; the resulting productivity boon yields the equivalent of 30 minutes of work. In Britain, a 2008 study found that workers who exercised before work or during lunch on certain days reported a boost in mood and job performance.
And Levine’s number-crunching has found that the return on investment for employers funding comprehensive programs is roughly $5 for every $1 spent, thanks to ramped-up productivity, fewer sick days and lower healthcare costs. Other studies have found returns closer to $3 per $1 spent.
The trick is that the rewards don’t come one and two weeks after the initiation of the programs, which means employers must often put up a sizable sum with the hope of a long-term payoff.
“The rewards come one year later,” Levine said, “and that takes guts.”