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Silicon Valley is getting healthy, crunching abs, not just apps

May 11, 2012|By Jessica Guynn
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

It’s the latest revolution sweeping Silicon Valley: Potato chips are out, kale chips are in.

More and more, tech workers are trying to get fit. They sleep with devices that measure their REM, load up on low-glycemic food and work at standing or walking treadmill desks. When they brainstorm new features, they go for a walk rather than piling into a conference room.

They're getting an assist from their employers. The Facebooks and Googles of the tech world say they are responding to mounting evidence that links diet, exercise and sleep to on-the-job performance. They are offering free gym memberships and on-site gyms, unlimited sick days, nap pods and hammocks and top chefs to whip up meals with fewer than 600 calories.

"Everyone in Silicon Valley is getting more conscious and smarter about health and the impact health has on happiness and creativity," said Mark Pincus, chief executive officer of Zynga.

Pincus used to carry a notebook with him to jot down everything he ate and how it made him feel an hour later. A hamburger and fries made him sluggish, a salad gave him an energy rush. So in the early days of Zynga, Pincus hired a chef from the California Culinary Academy to prepare nourishing meals for his tiny start-up. Today Zynga, the publicly traded maker of FarmVille and other social games, is a hot meal ticket. It serves up 24,000 pounds of gourmet grub each week.

The high-tech health trailblazers were Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, famous for taking gastronomy as seriously as algorithms. Google color codes all the menu options in its cafes according to the Harvard School of Public Health’s healthy eating pyramid. It puts the healthiest products at eye level and within easiest reach. Google offers on-site doctors, physical therapists, masseuses and chiropractors and gyms with subsidized personal trainers and fitness classes. It does biometric screening to test employees’ blood pressure and cholesterol levels to help encourage health. And it hosts a health speaker series that has brought such notables to its Mountain View, Calif., campus as Dr. Mehmet Oz and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

Google rival Facebook is also no slouch. It serves up culinary delights to more than 2,000 staffers who work at its new 57-acre Menlo Park, Calif., campus, color coding menu options to tip off employees to healthy options and portions. The new campus is plastered with posters encouraging staffers to hit the full gym that offers yoga and bootcamp classes and subsidized personal trainers.

This new wave of health consciousness has even spread to scrappy start-ups. Though they can’t afford to offer the same impressive array of benefits as the big guys, they are looking for ways to help their staffers lead a healthier lifestyle.

San Francisco’s Eventbrite offers a monthly wellness stipend, subsidized weekly visits from a massage therapist and an acupuncturist, consultations with a nutritionist, a zen room where employees can chill out, and nutritious meals and snacks. Bike and running groups have also formed at the company.

“We don’t dictate to employees or proselytize, we just want to offer employees healthy stuff,” Eventbrite Chief Executive Kevin Hartz, 42, said.

Hartz shed 20 pounds after practicing what his start-up preaches. He consulted a naturopath and a nutritionist, modified his diet and climbs onto a new elliptical trainer while reading his iPad for 30 minutes four times a week before hitting the office.

Five years ago, three entrepreneurs started Weebly in their apartment. They ate cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and hot dogs or hamburgers for dinner. They routinely binged on ice cream during late-night coding sessions. Now Weebly dishes up healthful food and snacks and free gym memberships. It has a walk-in shower and bike racks for people who pedal to work.

“We used to be in blitz mode, but that’s not sustainable,” Weebly’s Chief Executivce Dave Rusenko said. “Now people are able to stay productive for the long haul, not just the short-term sprint, and they are generally much happier.”

Even San Francisco’s Greplin, where the Cheetos and soda still flow plentifully, is trying to be more health conscious. It offers catered lunches and a giant freezer stocked with Lean Cuisine.

Also driving Silicon Valley’s health kick: The cycle of innovation. It’s making a new generation of sophisticated gadgets and apps that track health and fitness. The fitness tools are catching on with tech workers who spend their days obsessively crunching data, but not always their abs.

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