The Unexpected Benefits of Boosting Employee Fitness

July 19, 2017

“I can’t go a day without working out.” “Going for a run just puts me in a better mood.” “I’m a much nicer person when I go to the gym.” These are all statements that we’ve heard (or perhaps even uttered ourselves at some point!). And it turns out that science backs up these anecdotal observations: Physical activity really does have a positive impact on our wellbeing in multiple ways.

Wondering if as an employer you should take some steps to encourage the physical fitness of your employees? The short answer is yes. For the longer answer, keep reading!

Employer-sponsored fitness: So hot right now

Let’s take a quick look at the typical employee lifestyle. The average American commutes to work by car, spends 8 to 10 hours sitting at their desk (in fact, 86% of American workers sit all day, every day), and returns home to spend more time sitting on the couch watching TV or doing other sedentary activities. So there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement!

And forward-thinking companies realize this. That’s why 64% of employers offer behavioral change interventions/solutions focusing on physical activity (according to the Willis Health & Productivity survey report) and 53% of organizations want to create a culture that promotes health and wellness (according to the 2017 Employee Benefits Report by SHRM).

Why fitness matters

The sedentary scenario described in the previous section is sadly not limited to the US alone—the World Health Organization believes more than 60% of the global population is not sufficiently active, yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe regular physical activity as “one of the most important things you can do for your physical health.”

We’re not talking about running a marathon every week, either. For healthy adults, the recommendation is for 150 minutes of physical activity at moderate intensity or 75 minutes of activity at vigorous intensity every week. Yep, just swap out one binge-watching Netflix session for a swim, walk, or hike, and you’ve pretty much met your weekly requirement.

Adding that relatively small amount of activity can have a BIG impact on health, including: reducing the risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, depression, certain kinds of cancer, and premature death! Plus, regular exercise leads to improved mood, sleep, thinking, learning, and judgment.

But why is this relevant in the workplace and why is it something employers should care about? Keep reading to find out!

Wellness & the workplace

If health care costs are something you’re measuring (or paying for), take note that employees who have high overall wellbeing have 41% lower health-related costs compared with employees who are struggling, according to Harvard Business Review. And the Centers for Disease Control estimate that the effects of poor health and obesity cost US companies $225 billion every year.

If you’re thinking more in terms of a happier, more productive workforce, exercise helps with that, too! Physically active employees are absent less frequently than their inactive counterparts, and employees who get at least 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week miss on average 4.1 fewer days of work per year.

And last (but definitely not least), successful wellness programs can increase revenue by 40% and shareholder returns by 28%.

So there are clearly a lot of reasons why it literally pays to encourage your employees to be more active.

Can employers have an impact on employee fitness?

You may be saying to yourself, that’s great, but what role can employers really have in their employees’ health and habits?

A pretty big one, as a matter of fact!

According to the 2017 Employee Benefits Report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 88% of organizations with wellness programs rated their initiatives as somewhat or very effective in improving employee health. And it’s not just on the employer side: 87% of employees said they are open to employer-sponsored wellness programs.

But what do these programs actually look like in practice?

Designing your workplace wellness program

When it comes to workplace wellness programs that encourage employees to be more physically active, here are some of the most common offerings:

  • Offsite fitness center membership subsidy/reimbursement
  • Onsite fitness center
  • Onsite fitness classes
  • Offsite fitness class subsidy/reimbursement
  • Company-provided fitness bands/activity trackers
  • Bike purchase/bike share subsidy reimbursement

But don’t feel limited by these options—you can really get as creative as you’d like! Some initiatives are as simple as encouraging employees to take walking meetings, others involve a bit of upfront investment like setting up a ping pong table, and others are much more elaborate like Zappos’ “Recess Tuesdays” where parts of the company campus are transformed into adult jungle gyms. It all depends on what makes the most sense for your employees—and your budget.

The specifics may vary, but successful programs tend to have the following elements in common: leadership commitment and support, employee interest and participation, and effective communication. Make sure that company leaders not only see the value in wellness programs, but they also participate and encourage other employees to do so as well. Employees will generally not be interested if they feel they have no choice in the program, so make sure to ask about their preferences and provide choices whenever possible. And finally, even the most amazing program will fall flat if no one knows it exists! So it’s essential to think about how you’ll communicate your program to everyone in your company.

A few final thoughts

There’s no denying that physical activity can have a positive impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of your employees. And there’s a strong chance that promoting fitness will pay off for your business as well. You’ve got a lot of information to help you consider whether offering a fitness-focused wellness program makes sense for your employees.

Now we’d love to hear from you! What have you done to encourage employee fitness? What’s worked (or what hasn’t)? Leave us a comment to let us know.

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