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Abs joining apps on tech firms' to-do list

Some tech workers are sleeping with devices that measure their REM, loading up on low glycemic food to sustain energy levels naturally and working at desks while standing or walking on treadmills. Employers are aiding the effort.

May 11, 2012|By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times
  • Treadmill workstations are popular on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif. Even start-ups in Silicon Valley are embracing healthier habits.
Treadmill workstations are popular on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park,… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

SAN FRANCISCO — Dustin Moskovitz, at 27 the world's youngest billionaire, gained fame and fortune after founding Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg.

He also gained the "Facebook 15." He packed on the extra pounds while chowing down on free snacks and guzzling four sodas a day at the social networking giant.

Today, Moskovitz is a svelte version of his former self. He runs Asana, a start-up named after the Sanskrit word for traditional yoga sitting positions. That's fitting since the company holds twice weekly group yoga classes at its San Francisco offices. It also employs a full-time chef who prepares two meals a day for 23 employees and stocks the office kitchen with fresh fruit, nuts and yogurt.

"If the micro-kitchen stocks Coke, I'll drink it," Moskovitz said. "So we don't."

Gadgets aren't the only things slimming down in Silicon Valley.

Some tech workers — their personal bandwidth expanding from too much sitting and too much food — are reprogramming their bodies the way they would machines. They sleep with devices that measure their REM, load up on low glycemic food to sustain energy levels naturally and work at desks while standing or walking on treadmills.

And they're getting help from employers. Tech companies have long attempted to squeeze every bit of productivity from their staffs, offering perks like free meals and gofers to run errands to keep employees glued to their screens.

But all that work and too little play can wreak havoc on creativity. Some firms are now encouraging workers to get moving to maintain their competitive edge. Google even has a seven-person bicycle as an alternative to piling into conference rooms for meetings.

"We are all running a million miles an hour," said venture capitalist Tim Chang, managing director of Mayfield Fund. "Burnout is a big risk for engineers. You need a sustainable lifestyle."

Of course, bad habits die hard. Sleepless nights and micro-kitchens stocked with sugar and soda are still the norm at tech giants and start-ups alike. Pizza joints in Palo Alto aren't in danger of going out of business.

Still, a pronounced behavioral shift is taking place, particularly among entrepreneurs age 30 and over. Digg founder Kevin Rose, 35, said he grew up in Las Vegas on a steady diet of Taco Bell, Burger King and Dr Pepper. Now his beverage of choice is loose-leaf tea. He carries a Fitbit device with him to track how many steps he takes and how many calories he's burning. He jumps on a treadmill desk to bang out emails.

"For a generation of geeks now in our mid-30s, you realize your body just can't take the damage like it used to be able to," said Rose, who sold his mobile apps maker Milk to Google last month.

Mark Pincus, the 46-year-old chief executive of Zynga, the maker of FarmVille and other social games, works out with a personal trainer and hits the yoga mat every morning.

Zynga's sparkling new 670,000-square-foot spread in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco has a wellness center stocked with exercise equipment, a sports court and rooms for tai chi and acupuncture. The company cafeteria serves more than 24,000 pounds of free gourmet grub each week to its nearly 3,000 employees, much of it inspired by Pincus' own judicious diet.

"It just naturally comes out of the Internet and start-up culture," Pincus said. "Each company takes notice of the cool things other companies are doing and then makes up the rules all over again."

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were high-tech health trailblazers when they hired their first chef, Charlie Ayers, in 1999.

Today, Google color codes all of the menu options in its cafes according to the Harvard School of Public Health's healthy eating pyramid. The search giant also provides its employees with free biometric blood screening and hosts a health speaker series.

Ayers, who left Google in 2005, now consults with young start-ups on how to feed their employees healthy food.

"People in Silicon Valley have become very concerned about what they are putting in their bodies and how that's going to affect how they feel and work the rest of the day," Ayers said.

Though they can't afford to offer the same smorgasbord of benefits as the big guys, start-ups are working on getting healthier too.

Former Googler and Olympic cyclist Dylan Casey, 41, was hired in December at San Francisco mobile social networking app maker Path to pull double duty, taking charge of product management and its staffers' health.

Years on the professional cycling circuit taught Casey the link between health and performance. Now Path holds yoga classes several times a week, and a service delivers healthy lunches. Every Wednesday is a cleanse day when staffers consume only liquids: soup and tea. Casey also is hoping to get everyone to climb the 22 flights to the office for a week instead of climbing into the elevator.

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