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How Exercising at Work Saves Money

Employee Wellness Program

Story at-a-glance -

  • Implementing a comprehensive company wellness program is a win-win for both the employers and employees and can save companies millions in health care costs and increased productivity
  • Companies that have implemented workplace wellness programs, such as offering free fitness classes during lunch hours and access to healthier foods, have seen healthier, happier employees and significantly lower company health care costs
  • Companies are well advised to take a simple survey to find out which programs most interest their employees, and provide positive incentives for participating

By Dr. Mercola

The top 10 leading causes of death cost the US economy $1.1 trillion, including not only direct medical care but also the indirect loss of productivity.1

Employers are not only feeling these effects when their workers become chronically sick or unproductive but also via health insurance costs, which continue to outpace inflation and earnings growth.

Yet, many of the leading causes of death, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and even infectious diseases like the flu can be warded off by a healthy lifestyle; imagine the lowered death toll, not to mention costs to the economy and employers, if more people decided to take control of their health…

Many companies are, in fact, starting to realize the significant impact employee wellness has on their bottom-line and are instituting various employee wellness programs as a result.

Employee Wellness Programs May Save Millions of Dollars a Year on Health Care

In 2008, $1.6 billion was spent on healthcare for state employees in California alone. Twenty-two percent of this was for treating high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and kidney disease – ailments that can be largely prevented through diet and exercise.

According to a study by the Urban Institute, if dietary and exercise changes reduced the prevalence of these conditions by even 5-15 percent – a conservative estimate – the state would save up to $54 million per year.2

The California Department of Public Health and the Department of Health Care Services is now working on implementing a worksite wellness program for its workers that is designed to give flexibility to scheduling, allowing workers to attend onsite exercise classes during their lunch hour, for instance.

At Blue Shield of California, meanwhile, a worksite wellness program has re-organized food in the cafeteria, providing easier access to healthful items, and also provides employees with a gym and exercise classes at no charge.

There are even treadmill desks and stand-up workstations, giving employees a chance to stay active during their workdays. Four out of five Blue Shield of CA employees have taken part in the program, and the results speak for themselves:

  • From 2008 to 2012, regular physical activity increased by 32 percent
  • Rates of high blood pressure decreased by 66 percent
  • Smoking rates dropped by 48 percent

Making Wellness Programs Accessible to Employees Is Key

Implementing a comprehensive company wellness program is a win-win for both the employers and employees, but successfully getting employees to actively participate in the program is key. This means designing them to actually make it realistic for employees to participate. As written by one public-health specialist in The Atlantic:3

"My family's experience with worksite wellness programs is typical of many. We were given a small incentive to complete an online baseline health risk assessment, and then given recommendations on how we could be healthier. We each got calls from a nurse to discuss these recommendations, but neither of us had the time for that in the midst of our busy workdays.

Worksite wellness programs won't save employers money -- and may in fact further drive up costs -- if they aren't designed to help employees actually change their habits."

Companies are well advised to take a simple survey to find out which programs most interest their employees, and provide positive incentives for participating. CVS' Caremark, for instance, has actually fined employees $600 for not undergoing an annual wellness review, a step that is virtually guaranteed to have a negative rather than positive impact on employee morale.

An example of a positive incentive program that would attract workers is a point-based reward system, which doesn't have employees competing with each other. Instead, employees are rewarded points that can be used for cash bonuses, free travel, shopping sprees, a month supply of healthy groceries, and/or gift certificates, for example. Making company announcements on employee successes also helps encourage and inspire others to participate in wellness at the workplace. Health care insurance companies are also utilizing incentive programs. When companies implement wellness programs, insurance companies lower their premiums.

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Examples of Workplace Wellness Options That Work

Empowering wellness programs and simple tools that focus on preventative health that Mercola.com and other companies offer to assist their employees in lifestyle modification include:

  1. Fitness Programs
    • Onsite gym with a variety of workout equipment and free-weights
    • Classes in yoga, dance, aerobics, Tai Chi, etc.
    • Onsite trainers and class instructors to help employees customize their workouts
    • Paid off-site gym memberships
    • Organized office team sports and activities: bowling, softball, group walks during breaks, bicycling, weekend hikes, etc.
    • Encourage staff to use the stairs instead of taking the elevator
    • Provide a secure site for bicycles to encourage cycling commuters
  2. Healthy Work Place Food Choices
    • Cater office lunches by local health food stores providing organic foods
    • Offer gift certificates to local organic restaurants and/or health food stores
    • Provide organic tea and coffee
    • Replace processed food and soda vending machine choices with sparkling/mineral water, nuts, dried fruits and other healthier choices
  3. Educational Seminars and Classes (at lunch or after hours)
    • Offer classes by local chefs on how to prepare healthy meals, preparing proper food portions, and how to create healthy snacks
    • Offer educational courses by local experts and/or authors on specific related topics, such as:
    Comprehensive weight loss program leading to sustainable lifestyle changes How healthy foods improve hormonal balance
    How to avoid and reverse diabetes How healthy foods and natural hygiene improve dental health
    Risks of a fast food diet Foods associated with allergies and migraines
    What are the best types of dairy products? Stress management strategies
    How fluoride in water affects health Infant and child wellness, including risks vs. benefits of vaccines


  4. Mental and Emotional Tune-ups
    • Onsite health clinics offering: chiropractic, physical therapy, chair massage, nutritionists, etc.
    • Discounts or free services provided by an alliance of off-site specialist
    • Employee Assistant Program providing confidential access for employees and their immediate family members to professional counseling services for short-term help in confronting such personal challenges as: alcohol and other substance abuse; marital and family difficulties; financial or legal issues, and emotional distress
    • Also provide appropriate referrals to community and private services for long-term challenges

Is Your Workplace Lacking a Wellness Program?

Many small and large companies are embracing wellness programs to help lower health care costs and create a healthier office culture – but some have yet to "see the light." If your employer has yet to implement such options, you (or even better a group of your colleagues) may want to introduce the idea to the human resources department or another key decision-maker in the company.

When doing so, let them know that nearly 70 percent of costs associated with health care are due to preventable conditions and that new data indicates that companies who have moved away from managing the cost of illness and instead support their employees' abilities to manage their health have lowered company risk for large catastrophic health care claims, and will pay less in health care costs in the long run.

As an example, IBM spends more than $1.3 billion a year on health care for the 450,000 employees, retirees, and family members it covers in the US. Their long-term investment in empowering their employees to be proactive in adopting healthier behaviors has paid off; their wellness program saved the company $190 million in health care costs, according to a 2009 report.4

The graphic below can also be helpful in illustrating how wellness programs build upon themselves to create healthier, happier employees, more productive workplaces and, ultimately, more successful corporations.

No Time to Exercise at Work?

Hopefully your place of employment will be receptive to implementing a wellness program if it doesn't already have one in place. If not, at least inquire about adjusting your working hours so that your schedule allows you to take control of your health when you're not at work (such as working from home a couple of days a week or lengthening your work days to work a four-day week).

If you can't exercise during your lunch hour or other breaks at work, you'll need to fit it in elsewhere. Viewing exercise as a non-negotiable part of your day is really the trick to getting it done. Ideally, schedule it into your appointment book the way you would an important meeting or social event. Set the time for it and then make no excuses about keeping it. Some options to add more activity to your day easily include:

  • Walk or bicycle to and from work
  • Walk your child to school, but recognize you will need far more intense exercise than walking to achieve any major benefits
  • Be active in and around your home -- use the stairs to exercise, work in the garden, or install some gym equipment

These are all excellent recommendations. However, I recommend not settling there, but continuing and implementing a well-rounded fitness program to really optimize your health benefits. This includes high-intensity interval-type training like Peak Fitness, which gives you a phenomenal workout in just 20 minutes a few times a week.

Wellness in the workplace definitely matters, and many companies are moving toward this healthier, happier office culture. If, however, your workplace is not and you can't find employment elsewhere, it becomes all the more important for you to implement a wellness program in your life outside of work.