Company gym pays off in two ways

Improvement is noted in waistlines, bottom lines

Health & Fitness

October 31, 2004|By Pamela LeBlanc | By Pamela LeBlanc,Cox News Service

Three times a week, when Roger Sorum finishes his shift doing equipment maintenance for an Austin, Texas, company, he heads to the gym.

It's not a long walk. The company has an on-site activity center, where Sorum puts in 30 minutes on the treadmill and another half-hour on cardio or weight machines. By the time he's finished, traffic has died down enough that the drive home flies by.

"It's very handy, very convenient," Sorum said. "A lot of my co-workers go, too, so there's mutual support. It's, 'Did you go to the gym this week?' "

When the gym's on the very campus where you work, it's hard to come up with an excuse not to exercise. You can't claim you missed lunchtime aerobics because class was too far away. It's harder to put off a morning walk when your office is steps from a jogging trail. And, if you're a company executive looking at the bottom line, you know that employees who regularly exercise are less costly when it comes to health care and sick days.

"Corporations are finding out they can't afford not to do something preventive," said Gregory Florez, spokesman for the American Council on Exercise and head of FitAdvisor. com, a corporate health coaching service. "Time and access are the two biggest issues for the working person -- and a work-site gym is a really good first step."

Sorum is proof of that. He wasn't a regular exerciser until he joined the company fitness center three years ago. Since then, he's lost more than 50 pounds. But that's not the only benefit.

"When I go to the gym, the pager stays in the locker, the cell phone stays in the locker. Nobody's going to bother me. It's a great stress release," he said.

Money in the bank

For employers, that translates into money saved.

"People who are fit and taking care of themselves are more productive," said Sandi Aitken, director of benefits for Freescale Semiconductor in Austin, where employees can shoot hoops on an outdoor court, take a healthy cooking class or lift free weights. "And they feel better working for an employer who takes care of them. It's about being active mentally, socially, spiritually and physically."

A 2004 University of Michigan study of 23,500 General Motors employees illustrates the point. The study showed that non-exercising workers claimed at least $100 more per year in health care costs than exercisers. And obese, sedentary employees who began exercising at least twice a week lowered their costs by an average of $500 a year.

In a perfect world, every major employer would offer its employees some kind of fitness program or facility.

The cream of the crop? In Kansas City, Sprint operates a 71,000-square-foot facility, complete with a basketball court, indoor running track, massage room, golf-swing simulator and cafe. But workout facilities don't have to be fancy -- even an empty room where workers can gather to pop an aerobics video into the VCR can make a difference.

"We have data to show if employees are active and have outlets, it reduces risk factors, which is a positive financial benefit to the company," said Cheryl Ridall with Club One ProServices, a California company that operates corporate gyms across the country.

Freescale's Aitken agrees: "The cornerstone is about resilience. Instead of, 'What made me sick?' it's 'How can I stay well?' "

Busy place

Even at midnight, the fitness center at AMD / Spansion, where Roger Sorum works, is bustling: People are lifting weights, pedaling furiously on stationary bicycles or plodding away on a treadmill.

About 21 percent of Austin's AMD employees -- about 700 people -- belong to this on-site club, which is chock-full of weight machines, elliptical trainers, stair steppers, fitness balls and jump ropes. There are group classes in everything from Pilates to spinning on stationary bikes.

Just don't look for chocolate in the vending machine. It's stocked with healthful options instead.

"It's convenient, it's great for stress relief and it helps promote a healthy work force," said Aimie Thatcher, who heads the AMD center run by Club One ProServices. "What a lot of people say when they walk in the door is, 'Oh, I didn't think it was going to be this nice.' "

Members can grab a fluffy, clean towel when they head into the locker room area, which is equipped with an ironing board and iron.

AMD also has a walking program, a 1.25-mile outdoor walking trail and maps that show point-to-point distances inside its buildings.

The fitness center opened in April 2001. Memberships cost $18 a month for AMD employees or $23 a month for contractors and family members older than 18. New members get tested for blood pressure, body composition, flexibility, strength and cardio fitness.

"When anybody walks through that door, they take off their title. They're not the entry-level worker in fabrication or the vice president of finance. They come in here to forget about work," Thatcher said.

Dollars and sense

Workplace wellness programs are good for the health of employees and the bottom line of employers.

A University of Michigan study of 23,500 General Motors employees this year showed that non-exercising workers claimed at least $100 more per year in health care costs than exercisers. And obese, sedentary employees who began exercising at least twice a week lowered their costs by an average of $500 a year.

In addition to fitness, workplace wellness programs have been designed for smoking cessation, stress and weight management and nutrition education.

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