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Work-Place Workouts : A New Breed of Corporate Fitness Program Is Helping to Ease High-Tech Laborers' Pains

January 25, 1987|PADDY CALISTRO

With about 11 million computer terminals in use in American offices, and projections suggesting that number will grow to 40 million by 1990, more and more people are developing a "high-tech" fitness problem. For years, secretaries, receptionists, stenographers and other chair-bound workers have been bothered by aches and pains from hours of uninterrupted sedentary work. And a common figure flaw, secretary's spread, was named after another occupational hazard of their sit-down, stay-put jobs. Now, millions of workers in a wide variety of jobs involving computers are experiencing the same discomforts and more serious problems related to their work.

Saddlebag hips and drooping derrieres may be disturbing to individuals, but employers and managers have become increasingly concerned about the headaches, eyestrain, neck pains and backaches--and resulting declines in productivity--that seem to be epidemic among the 9-to-5 set.

One solution, introduced recently by East Coast-based exercise physiologist Denise Austin, is "Tone Up at the Terminals," a fitness guide for video-display-terminal users. First issued as a booklet, Austin's program is filled with user-friendly exercises to improve circulation and reduce the physical toll of sitting eight hours or more at a VDT. With more than 500,000 copies in five languages in use in corporate offices, Austin has now released the program as software for IBM PC-compatible microcomputers. As each exercise is explained, a color graphic image of Austin demonstrating the movement is displayed on the screen.

"These exercises don't make you sweat," says Austin, who also serves as fitness expert on NBC's "Today" show and is a consultant to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. "The point is to get the blood circulating, to give the eyes, the brain and the body a little break. I recommend that the exercises be done twice a day for about five minutes."

At American Express in Phoenix, Austin says, 5,000 data-entry workers stop clicking away at their keyboards at 10:15 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. daily for a tone-up. They remain in their chairs to perform the 20-exercise set. Austin says that the exercises are designed to be done seated, provided that the chairs are not on casters.

"When American Express researchers did a follow-up study, they found that after the exercise program had been in use for several months there was an 8.5% improvement in productivity--fewer errors and more keystrokes," Austin says.

To deal with figure flaws such as secretary's spread, many computer workers are doing floor exercises that concentrate on the hips, legs and buttocks. And some of them are doing their workouts at work. Increased productivity and reduced health-care costs are the main reasons that employers are instituting such programs. Such programs, once reserved for high-level executives, "now try to reach the blue-collar worker, women at all levels and retirees," says Chris Aguiar, president of the Assn. for Fitness in Business. That Connecticut-based, 3,000-member organization helps firms establish work-site programs nationwide.

Companies are now constructing gyms, offering in-house aerobics classes and even paying for health-club memberships for rank-and-file employees.

"About 75% of the Fortune 500 companies offer serious exercise programs," says Michael Wolf, a Manhattan-based corporate fitness consultant. "They view the dollars they invest as 'wellness dollars' that are paid back quickly. Estimates are that for every $1 a firm invests, it gets back up to $3.75 in health-care cost savings." He cites a study by Houston's Tenneco Corp., which indicates that the health-care costs of non-exercising employees were at least twice that of regular exercisers.

A study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. showed that within companies that promote fitness programs, 20% of the women and 30% of the men who had never exercised before began regular, vigorous exercise programs. Even more important, on average, employees stayed with the program for two years.

The success of corporate fitness programs is directly related to implementation, says Harv Ebell, executive director of the Assn. for Fitness in Business, who cautions against merely setting up equipment. Ebell suggests a more personal touch, including the presence of exercise professionals at the work site.

Experts agree that a little exercise goes a long way to improving fitness. As Austin points out: "The average American sits at least 7.5 hours a day. If we can get them moving--even if they're still in their chairs--that's a step toward improved fitness."

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