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More Companies View Fitness of Employees as Worthy of Investment

May 22, 1990|STEPHEN C. CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was lunchtime one recent day, and Ellen Yoder's co-workers were sitting in a smoky break room reading magazines, playing cards and eating. Yoder, however, was in her usual place astride an exercise bike at Rockwell International's employee fitness center in Anaheim.

Yoder, 31, says her co-workers "think I'm crazy" for skipping lunch for her daily workout at Rockwell's fitness center, a sprawling 20-acre facility with softball fields, an outdoor jogging path, tennis courts, an Olympic-size swimming pool, arts-and-crafts rooms and an aerobics center.

"I get grumpy if I don't work out every day," said Yoder, a parts manager who has been working out at the center for eight years. "The fitness center is so convenient that I can work out during my lunch break or wait for traffic to die down after work."

The Rockwell center--though unusual for the size and scope of its facilities--is just one example of how companies across Orange County and the nation are shelling out big bucks to build work-site exercise facilities and sponsor fitness or "wellness" activities.

Rockwell and about 20 other large employers in Orange County, such as United Western Medical Center and Odetics Inc., have invested in employee fitness hoping that the programs will pay dividends in improved office morale, enhanced recruitment, reduced absenteeism, higher productivity and lower employee health costs.

In The Times Orange County Poll on workplace issues, workers cited physical fitness programs as one of the corporate perks they value the most, with 64% saying they would use an on-site gym or health club benefits if available. But only 19% said their companies actually offer a fitness program, and only 6% of those with access to such a program use it, the survey found.

In the last decade, the national fitness and health craze has prompted companies to pay closer attention to the subject. Today, more than half the Fortune 500 companies have corporate health and fitness programs. An estimated 66% of the nation's work sites with 50 or more employees offer programs in smoking cessation, stress management, nutrition and exercise.

Whether fitness programs work as well in practice as in theory is a matter of dispute. Most of these programs are too new to have yielded much data about their benefit to employees or companies. And monitoring the benefits is problematical: How do you identify and document health problems that never occurred because of exercise?

But William Horton, president of Fitness Systems, a Los Angeles company that has designed and manages 39 corporate fitness programs in 29 states, said there are tangible benefits to such programs. He estimates that a company can save between $500 and $900 per year, per employee from lower health costs, reduced absenteeism and improved productivity.

Some companies choose instead to pay all or part of employees' membership fees at a health club. Though not as convenient for employees as having an on-site exercise center, this option is cheaper, especially for smaller firms.

Horton recommends that companies conduct a thorough study before setting up a fitness program, looking at such things as the number of employees likely to participate and the costs of staffing and facilities. He said the average annual cost of operating a typical fitness center runs between $400 and $700 per employee.

The tax implications also need to be considered, Horton said. In order to qualify for tax-exempt status, for example, a fitness center must be on a company's premises, be open to all employees and be managed by employees or an outside contractor.

"It's a benefit that goes beyond what is expected," said Jack Rector, vice president and general manager of Rockwell Aid, a separate, nonprofit corporation established by Rockwell to operate the company's recreation and fitness centers across the country.

"In recent years, with the cost of health insurance, it helps to provide a fitness program," Rector said. "If you have a healthy person, it's a logical conclusion that the company will have less medical costs."

Although Rockwell has no data showing an increase in employee morale or fewer sick days, Rector said supervisors tell him that they notice a change. He declined to say how much Rockwell spends annually to run the fitness center in Anaheim.

Rockwell is not alone in providing exercise facilities on the job site. United Western Medical Center in Santa Ana has operated its "rehabilitation and conditioning center" since 1984.

The center is outfitted with Nautilus machines, weights and other exercise equipment, and it offers cardiac care and aerobics classes. It also offers specialized services not typically found in your run-of-the-mill fitness center: physical examinations, physical therapy and water treatments for muscle and joint problems.

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