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Employers tell workers to get a move on

Concerned about sedentary jobs, many offices find ways to add exercise to the workday. Some see it as an investment in workers' healthcare.

May 15, 2011|By Olga Khazan, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • At Electronic Arts' Playa Vista office, employees spend their lunch hours playing soccer or battling each other with fake swords.
At Electronic Arts' Playa Vista office, employees spend their lunch… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

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.

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