All in a Day's Work(out)

At some companies, employees aren't chained to their desks

instead, they're encouraged to get moving

May 01, 2008|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

Brenda Rivera has dropped from a size 16 to a size 8 after several rounds in an office weight-loss competition. Jeff Pedone has been able to stay fit by lifting weights during his lunch hour. And Tammy Godwin has lost 50 pounds by walking and pedaling on a treadmill, elliptical machine and stationary bike.

They work for Kelly & Associates, a Hunt Valley insurance broker and consultancy, and say their daily workouts haven't just been allowed during the workday, they've been encouraged.

The four brothers that run Kelly, all athletes in school, say they have tried to instill a healthy attitude in the building. They've also tried to sell wellness programs to their clients as a means to save on their health insurance.

Prompted by increasing rates of obesity and related health problems, more companies are following Kelly's lead. Executives who have programs say their workers are happier and more productive. And while no one could put a dollar figure on it, the business leaders said they believe they are saving money.

All those extra pounds cost their employers an estimated $12.7 billion in medical expenses and billions more in productivity losses, according to the American Heart Association, which has launched a campaign for more "fit companies" like Kelly.

"We've come to recognize that healthier employees are happier employees, well-motivated employees and less costly employees," said Francis X. "Frank" Kelly III, chief executive of the 330-person office.

Businesses have started walking groups, opened gyms, offered smoking-cessation plans and overhauled the cafeteria and vending-machine food. Top managers also have started joining the activities in an effort to change the office culture, which, for many Americans, means hours upon hours sitting at a desk.

Several Kelly workers said it wasn't uncommon to see one of the principals on an exercise bike or playing basketball behind headquarters.

The American Heart Association says nine companies in the region got its fit company designation this year by starting or maintaining healthy workplaces. They are listed in association literature and can use the label in recruiting and retention.

The companies were honored at a recent breakfast downtown at the Center Club that also served as a sales pitch to other area business leaders. Association leaders say it's hard to achieve a healthful workplace without the lead of the executives - and about 15 expressed interest in beginning programs.

The fit companies program was launched two years ago because people spend more of their day sitting at work - 164 more hours a year than 20 years ago.

The heart association says people are up to 2 1/2 times more likely to develop heart disease if they are inactive, and 70 percent of adults get no regular physical activity. Cardiovascular disease is the nation's No. 1 killer.

The association partnered with Baltimore and Mayor Sheila Dixon, designating April 16 as "Start Walking Day in Baltimore," as a means to encourage more people to get moving.

The heart association says adults gain as much as two hours of life expectancy for each hour of regular, vigorous exercise, like brisk walking.

"Adults spend so many of their waking hours at their desks," said Nicole Aiello Sapio, a senior vice president of corporate relations at the Mid-Atlantic affiliate of the heart association. "Companies need to offer the opportunities."

That includes all workplaces. Also on the list of Fit Companies is Baltimore's Health Department. Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said he holds regular meetings while on walks and has put up "take the stairs" signs on all the elevators.

"They're relatively easy but important steps for employers to take," Sharfstein said.

Sharfstein said Baltimore's population is particularly affected by health troubles related to weight. Diabetes and other conditions jumped from 5.8 percent to 10.3 percent of the population from 1995 to 2004.

Alan D. Wilson, the Sparks spice maker McCormick & Co. Inc.'s president and chief executive officer, launched a variety of health-related programs. They included nutrition education, Weight Watchers, weight-loss contests, walking groups, yoga and aerobics classes, massage therapy and personal health assessments.

He learned his own cholesterol was high in one of those assessments and began working out more in a gym and eating oatmeal for breakfast until the number came down.

Wilson said he tried to set an example by taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Many of his 2,000 employees followed. The programs at McCormick and elsewhere are voluntary, but Wilson said the bosses do have to create an atmosphere.

"We have a lot of programs, but there is definitely a cultural aspect to this," he said.

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