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May 03, 1987|JEFF ROWE | Jeff Rowe is a free-lance writer

It's lunchtime and instead of munching on sandwiches, sipping soup and lingering over drinks, a group of Fluor Corp. employees are pumping iron, jogging and getting sweaty.

They seem to enjoy every minute of it.

"When I go back in the afternoon, I feel like it's a second morning," said Bill Kirk, a senior systems analyst, as he strained against an exercise machine in the company's fitness center, which includes a dozen different machines, a whirlpool and jogging trails around the company's Irvine complex.

"It refreshes you, clears your head," said David Copley, Fluor's treasurer, as he worked up a sweat in a T-shirt emblazoned "Fluor's Fit Factory."

"The most important resource we have is our people," said Stan Mintz, Fluor's full-time health promotion director. By helping the employees keep fit and reduce stress, the exercise center "helps them reach their highest potential," he said. About half of Fluor's 1,500 employees in Irvine use the exercise facility regularly, and 500 others use it at least sporadically, Mintz said.

Back in 1978, when Fluor first opened its employee fitness center, corporate fitness centers were as rare a sight in American business as an executive in swim trunks. But confronted with ever-rising medical costs, many companies began investing in employee fitness programs and found that they paid extra dividends, such as greater productivity and reductions in absenteeism and attrition.

Today, tens of thousands of companies nationwide have in-house exercise facilities and thousands of others at least partially underwrite the costs of health club memberships for their employees. A recently completed study by the federal Department of Health and Human Services found that 60% of the 1,358 work sites surveyed had some type of health promotional activity, an "astonishing" percentage, a department official said.

Growth Industries

Fitness and wellness clearly have become growth industries in America, and although an exact count of companies that have started such programs is difficult to establish, Los Angeles-based Corporate Fitness magazine claims that its 19,500 subscribers are for the most part companies that either have fitness and wellness programs in place or are planning them.

Many executives say they established fitness centers at the company site because of the reality that most people become "couch potatoes" when they go home from work. Surveys indicate that about 10% of the adult population exercises regularly, but having fitness facilities at the company site lures normally sedentary workers and "that is where the payoff is," said one executive.

"Those who have gone through the (fitness) program carry the torch for others to improve their health," said Phyllis McHarg, a spokeswoman at EECO Inc., a Santa Ana electronics concern that sponsors aerobics and nutrition classes for its employees. Besides a savings in medical costs for its employees, EECO executives believe that absenteeism has been declining every year since the company implemented fitness programs in 1982.

Most company fitness programs began with a personal interest by senior managers. At the Irvine-based Robert P. Warmington Co., President Robert Warmington uses the company's fitness facility every day. The developer and hotel builder's offices include a basketball court, a racquetball court, a workout room and a hot tub. About 40% of the 90 employees who work for either Robert P. Warmington or his brother's company, Warmington Homes, use the facilities regularly, said George Newland, assistant director of hotel operations for Warmington. "People seem to be getting more health-conscious," he said, excusing himself to play in a company basketball game.

At Columbia Savings & Loan, health and fitness programs include comprehensive medical testing and individualized nutrition and exercise programs. To make sure the health gospel is taken home, the company gave all its employees a stationary bicycle for Christmas in 1985, said Marla Hughes, director of health and fitness at the company's Irvine administrative offices.

Perhaps few companies have a health and fitness program as ambitious as that at Odetics Inc., an Anaheim robotics and information-processing company.

In addition to volleyball and basketball courts, a lap pool, two weight rooms and aerobics classes are all coordinated by a full-time fitness director. At the company's annual health fair, Odetics underwrites the daily fees for doctors, dentists and other health professionals who come in and offer their services free to employees for that day.

Odetics does not have statistics to quantify the benefits of its wellness and fitness program, but Bill Pritchard, a company spokesman, says there is "no doubt" that the programs are a success, and he calls Odetics' facility "probably the finest corporate fitness center in the country."

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