As evidence mounts that fit employees are productive workers, companies have slotted into the corporate routine an array of workplace workout initiatives, from in-house gyms to lunchtime yoga.
But fitness experts say even the best-intentioned get-fit efforts can founder before the demands of a corporate culture that is stressful, sedentary and increasingly round-the-clock.
“This demand for 24/7 access, this idea that I can always access you and you should intensely, immediately respond, is a stressor, and we know from studies that chronic stress will shorten your life and ultimately kill you,” said Dr. Mary Ellen Rose, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant for workplace health promotion.
Rose believes that even the wearable fitness bands and watches meant to keep exercisers on track can be counter-productive.
“When you’re happy and healthy, you’re more productive,” she said. “But for people who are high anxiety, monitoring every little thing becomes a stressor.”
Obesity costs employers about $73 billion annually in absenteeism and medical expenses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Patrick Hitchins, co-founder of FitRankings, an Austin, Texas-based fitness tech company that ranks the fitness levels of individuals and companies, notes that most fit people in a company are usually the executives.
“For employees to perform at their best they need to be fit, yet workplaces have become anti-fit and increasingly sedentary,” he said.
Hitchins believes companies have a long way to go before they see their employees as athletes rather than as cogs in a machine.
“(We need) to raise that awareness on the corporate level that its (fitness) is cheaper than a trip to the hospital,” he said.
Installing showers at the office and welcoming yoga pants at midday meetings are among the methods that Alexia Brue, co-founder with Melisse Gelula of the wellness media company Well+Good, said corporations can use in the workplace.
“One of the challenges is (creating the) acceptance that you can work out at lunch and come back to the desk sweaty,” said New York-based Brue. “Culturally there needs to be a shift, so workers can roll into office from their workout.”
On the hopeful side, Brue cites the rise of "sweatworking," or entertaining clients in boutique fitness studios rather than bars, as a good sign.
“We also need to get out the message that it’s as important to unplug and to, say, meditate as it is to be always and immediately responsive, “ she said.