Corporate fitness in motion

By Lori Bachman and Ed Buffett
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/23/2001

In a recent study by the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, it was concluded that the health and quality of life of two-thirds of Canadians are threatened due to physical inactivity.

Studies such as this one consistently show that the majority of Canadians recognize the need for lifestyle changes and cite the need to increase their level of physical activity. At the same time, they say that the biggest barrier to increasing their activity is time.

And if people say a shortage of time is contributing to an unhealthy lifestyle, then employers share some responsibility for doing something about it.

Recently Art Quinney, a spokesperson for the Canadian Council for Health and Active Living and associate vice-president (Academics) at the University of Alberta, stated “Today we are issuing a warning that if things don’t change — and change quickly — being a member of Canada’s workforce can be hazardous to your health. With more than 15 million Canadians spending half of their waking hours at work, it is critical that we address this problem.”

Many organizations are moving in the right direction towards putting fitness related initiatives in place. A growing number of firms have allotted sums of money to subsidize memberships at local fitness facilities for their employees. Community centres also have a wide variety of fitness offerings available, and in Ontario, the Halton Catholic District School Board and the Town of Markham are subsidizing employee and family member passes for fitness classes and general memberships to various facilities.

Wisely, these employers recognize that the peer support provided by making the membership available to family members encourages participation and provides much needed support for those who are in the process of changing their behaviour as it relates to physical activity.

Some workplaces promote the use of stairs rather than elevators, walking clubs, and team competitions — placing members of the various stakeholder groups on each team to create communication and cohesion between departments. This setup breaks down barriers and demonstrates that fitness is a priority for everyone within an organization. To encourage participation in this type of initiative, inexpensive prizes such as T-shirts for the winning team and recognition in corporate newsletters are common incentives.

Another viable option for organizations is to field teams for a variety of corporate events (baseball tournaments, hockey leagues, running teams) and for other community initiatives such as the Run for the Cure and the Diabetes Walk. One district school board set up a team to organize and encourage fellow employees to participate in the Terry Fox Run this past year with overwhelming success. In Ontario, the Region of Niagara, through its public health department and its Wellness Steering Committee, set up the Summer Active Program — a provincial program that encourages physical activity, and organized a walking program with teams and prizes incorporated into the structure of the events.

Husky Injection Moulding and MDS Nordion are two examples of employers that have provided employees with wide array of initiatives and offerings to increase their physical activity levels and improve their health. Husky Injection Moulding has provided employees with access to a naturopath at the workplace on a regular basis. MDS Nordion provides a range of employee support programs from jogging and hiking trails around the plant to music therapy and reflexology. Increasingly companies like these are finding and developing space at work that can be allotted for fitness related activities.

Rooms are being designated for exercise classes, cardiovascular training equipment, weights and mats to be used during free time throughout the workday. Classes have been set up for yoga, Tai Chi, aerobics, boxercise and stretching activities both on lunch hours and during pre- and post-work time. Qualified instructors are being contracted from the community or recruited from within the workforce to lead classes.

Roughly 30 per cent of people could be classified as the “worried well.” These are people who are generally in good health and have active lifestyles, who will continue to pursue the kind of activities that maintain health.

Data confirms that this 30 per cent of the population has a lower rate of absenteeism, is more productive and typically incurs fewer health-care costs, particularly in the areas of short-term and long-term disability. The other 70 per cent want to be healthier but are not prepared to alter their lifestyles in order to achieve this improvement.

Motivation from within

Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, most employer-sponsored physical activity programs have failed to grasp this very important reality: people need to be motivated and given some form of incentive to participate in wellness activities.

Edwin P. Slaughter, the director of research for Prevention magazine states “People can still take steps to eat a healthier diet, make a habit of physical activity and maintain a proper weight. And these behaviours are paradoxically the hardest and easiest changes to make because we can and must make them ourselves. We need encouragement to help us take the small steps necessary to accomplish this.”

Begin by correcting common misconceptions about exercise. Health researchers have determined that individuals can engage in moderately vigorous activity for at least 30 minutes a day, three to four days per week in order to achieve physical health benefits. However, many people believe that in order to achieve any significant physical or health benefits it’s necessary to put in 60 minutes per day at a vigorous pace, six or seven days each week. That is simply not true.

Exercise can be anything from doing housework and running errands to running marathons. There are a limitless number of possibilities available that will help to elevate the heart rate, burn calories, improve cardiovascular function, and increase strength and co-ordination.

In the end, what it comes down to is desire and commitment. People must be truly motivated to make behavioural changes that will endure. They must want it enough to be willing to accept the tools that they are given and to make use of them.

Diane Showalter, the wellness co-ordinator for the City of Cherney, Wash., explains “We have to help people to achieve their goals, not ours. We have to help people to do it at their own pace, not ours, and at their priority, not ours. We cannot cram wellness down people’s throats.”

It is important to tap into the reasons that people choose to become physically active. A recent survey sponsored by 24-hour Fitness, a large fitness chain with more than a million members and 124 clubs, found “people will not be attracted to participate if you focus exclusively on the improvement in health or extension of life as the primary means for doing so. People need more personal, more achievable, immediate goals to get themselves moving. In fact, in responding to this survey, the key reasons cited for engaging in physical activity, in order of importance, were: weight loss or improved appearance, stress relief, energy level increase and general recreation.”

It is important for organizations to strive to create internal motivation. If you develop internal motivation, people will pursue physical activity, in a form that they are comfortable with, because they want to do it — because they enjoy it.

Research has demonstrated several things about internal motivation in relation to physical activity. Someone who is internally motivated tends to persist with their activities for a longer duration and they tend to enjoy their activity more.

Where feasible, involve personal trainers. People who use personal trainers in either a group setting or on a one-on-one basis tend to stick to their programs 300 per cent longer than those who don’t have trainers.

It is important that wellness programs geared to encourage physical activity start small and encourage realistic goals. Wellness programs should purport not to change everybody, but rather simply to show the way.

The organization’s wellness consultant or program co-ordinator should act as a guide, and not as a director. Find out what people want and then devote resources and energies to giving them the programs in which they have expressed a keen interest.

Encourage people to ask questions. If people are asking questions, they are going to be more motivated. Speak with and listen to participants. Survey them — ask them what they want and listen attentively to their responses. If properly motivated and given appropriate incentives, employees are willing to participate in programs during breaks and lunch periods because of the challenge they are facing in balancing work and family life.

Time is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity for most employees. Gear your programs to the information that has been gleaned from potential participants. It is imperative to discover not only what people want, but also what they are prepared to do, before going about the business of designing programs.

Demonstrate to potential participants that the program is not difficult and that it does not involve an inordinate time commitment. People can be taught to view such things as breaks, lunch periods and non-work related hobbies, activities and responsibilities as opportunities to exercise.

Utilizing breaks and lunch periods for organized walking, getting in a few flights of stairs or leaving the car behind and doing personal errands on foot are ways of finding additional exercise opportunities without an overwhelming time commitment.

Stages of change

James Prochaska has demonstrated in his ground-breaking research on behaviour modification that change involves six stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and termination.

No one stage is any more or less important than the other but Prochaska and his colleagues found that fewer than 20 per cent of a problem population are prepared for action at any given time. In other words, not everybody will be ready to leap into a fitness program right off the bat. Yet, more than 90 per cent of behaviour change programs are designed with this 20 per cent in mind.

Prochaska’s scientific approach to self-change requires that you know what stage you are in for the problem that you want to overcome. Change isn’t easy and one of the keys to success is the appropriately timed use of a variety of coping skills at the appropriate stage of the change process. This model has been applied by researchers in order to help understand how people change in a broad range of circumstances.

The stages of change have been employed in rehabilitation programs for delinquent adolescents, drug addicts and patients with brain injury; in therapeutic courses for clients suffering from interpersonal problems or depression; and in clinical trials of psychotropic medications for patients with anxiety or panic disorders. The model has also been used to change behaviours of sedentary people and people with high fat diets, smokers and dozens of other groups.

It is also very important to find ways to show program participants results. An inexpensive, yet effective means of doing so is a diary in which participants note the activities that they have tried and how they felt. The diary represents concrete data that the individual can review at any time to view their programs and their accomplishments. It is also important to provide constructive feedback, encouragement and remember every step along the path to a regular regimen of exercise is a notable accomplishment.

The right incentives

Finally, don’t overlook the important role of incentives in encouraging participation in physical activity. In fact, in the U.S., where wellness programs are more deeply entrenched than here in Canada, a case study by William M. Mercer confirmed that 61 per cent of survey respondents use incentives to encourage employee participation in wellness programs.

Among the companies that offer incentives, 45 per cent simply require employees to participate in some facet of the program to earn rewards. In 34 per cent of those firms offering incentives, employees were actually required to achieve changes in behaviour or health status.

As an example, blood pressure or cholesterol would have a target level and upon realizing that objective, the employee would receive this reward. According to the Health Management Research Centre at the University of Michigan, which has collected health-care data on close to two million individuals in 1,000 worksites, high risk employees — those with poor lifestyle habits — are absent more frequently, incur more short-term and long-term disability claims, and are less productive than employees who are low to moderate health risks.

And in a study conducted by Labour Canada in 1999, it was determined that it costs an additional $2,460 per year to employ a smoker. In addition, the price tag associated with Canadian adults who are physically inactive exceeds $2 billion per year and obesity costs more than $1.8 billion per year, and there is a growing list of examples of organizations that have reduced absenteeism, thereby reducing costs as a result of wellness initiatives.

Participation is key

The real issue is not whether an organization does or does not subsidize the cost of a gym membership or provide fully equipped exercise facilities, the challenge is learning how to increase participation levels.

All of the equipment in the world, all the great programs are virtually worthless unless they engage people and result in greater levels of employee physical activity. Perhaps we would be wiser if we spent a little more time studying the challenges of program participation and the potential solutions prior to committing significant financial resources without having done the necessary preparatory legwork.

We wouldn’t introduce a new technology into our organization without fully educating ourselves and our employees concerning its functionality and how to best capitalize on its capabilities. If we believe that in a knowledge-based economy, our employees truly are our most valued resource, then it is obligatory that we do the necessary research before embarking on a path to wellness through increased physical activity.

Lori Bachman is the assistant vice president, wellness consulting, at Buffett Taylor & Associates. She can be reached at lorib@buffetttaylor.com.

Ed Buffett, chairman and CEO of Buffett Taylor & Associates, can be reached at ebuffett@buffetttaylor.com.

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