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Working Out While at Work : Health: Companies are spending millions on employee exercise centers, believing fit employees are more productive and healthier.

November 23, 1989|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Corporate fitness centers used to be a perk.

"Companies started putting in recreational centers and exercise equipment because it was a 'good thing,' " said Stephen Pauley, manager of the Rockwell Employees Recreation and Fitness Center in West Hills. The center, which opened in 1941, serves the 9,000 area employees of Rockwell's Rocketdyne division.

"The benefit to a company was undefinable. You couldn't put it on a graph or show how it would help a company's financial picture. It was just a good thing to do. A benefit. A warm fuzzy."

The workplace has changed radically at Rocketdyne since the West Hills center opened. Likewise, views on bodybuilding and fitness: Pumping iron has gone from aberration to social acceptance to being a craze that shows no sign of abating.

In the 1980s, more businesses jumped on the fitness bandwagon--and not just to be faddish or to increase their quota of warm fuzzies. Corporations, many of which had long subsidized health-club memberships for top executives, were ready to experiment with offering the joys of sweat to a far wider range of workers. They were willing to bet that a fitter employee would be a more productive employee who would file fewer costly health claims.

Such national powerhouses as Campbell Soup, General Electric, Hughes Aircraft and Toyota U.S.A. have installed fitness centers at various facilities in the past few years. Likewise, a handful of firms headquartered in the San Fernando Valley have made a considerable investment in exercise equipment, locker rooms, showers and even personal trainers.

Rocketdyne's commitment to fitness and recreation, for example, comes with an annual price tag of $1.3 million to staff and maintain the 10-acre West Hills center, with its indoor exercise building and extensive outdoor playing fields. The property, once part of an estate owned by comedian Lou Costello, was acquired to provide plant employees with recreation space for baseball games, picnicking and other family outings. One of the playgrounds has a metal Jungle Gym-like structure shaped, appropriately, like a rocket.

"All this started as part of the industrial recreation movement of the early 1940s," Pauley said while conducting a tour of the center. "Back then, we had about 80% blue-collar workers at the plant and 20% white-collar and executives. The company thought it was a good thing for the employees to have a nice place to spend leisure time with other workers. Join clubs, play sports. It would build morale. But there wasn't much thought given to 'working out.' They did enough physical labor on the job. It was hard work."

With the advent of computerized automation, the ratio of blue- to white-collar workers at Rocketdyne has almost reversed itself, Pauley said. And the blue-collar jobs involve much less heavy lifting.

"Now those jobs mostly consist of someone sitting and watching a CRT screen, monitoring what an automated machine is doing," Pauley said. "It used to be that after a day of work, blue-collar workers had to go home and rest. Now, they leave work and go work out."

The fitness center, which is free to Rocketdyne employees, their spouses and retirees, has also been transformed by technology, especially in the room recently set aside for cardiovascular exercise, with its eight high-tech Stairmaster machines (with six more on order), two rowing machines and 12 stationary bicycles. The nearby weight room has several racks of dumb bells and barbells, plus an 11-station circuit of Nautilus exercise machines. A suspended wood floor, which is thought to reduce the impact on the body during aerobic exercise, was recently installed in a former auditorium at a cost of $35,000.

Outside are two 60-foot swimming pools and a children's wading pool; tennis, basketball and volleyball courts; a running track and a croquet green.

But on a recent weekday afternoon, fewer than 20 people were using all these facilities. Pauley said that because the company allows little flexibility in workers' schedules, most of the people who use the center during the workday are retirees and spouses.

"Flex time has traditionally been a no-no at Rocketdyne," he said, "so workers have to come after work or on weekends. That's when we get very busy." Pauley, a trim man who has competed in 90 triathlons, clearly wishes company policy were otherwise.

"I think flex time would be the way to go," he said, "but it's not easy convincing a big company to make that big of a change on the say-so of the fitness director."

Pauley estimates that only about 10% of the eligible workers visit regularly. He wishes that the percentage were higher, but he also is not sure what he would do if the numbers suddenly increased. "I'd like it to be at least 20%," he said, "but 20% of 9,000 is a lot of people. As big as this center is, we would not be able to handle them."

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