Business of Well-being

Treadmill Desks: Don't Take Corporate Wellness Sitting Down

Let's face it. Even in the best companies with the best practices, when things happen slowly enough, they can go quietly unnoticed. Whether positive or negative, small changes can slip by unobserved, slowly growing until they can no longer be denied. Good habits are like baby steps forward, gently adding up over time.

Detrimental practices are the painful opposite, gradually increasing from nuisances to crises. American businesses deal with this harsh reality, watching as poor employee health habits have compounded to result in spiraling healthcare costs and endless rate hikes. With average individual employee healthcare premiums set to eclipse $10,000 annually, human resource departments have watched the annoying leaky faucet turn into a flooded foundation.

There's an elephant in the room, and it just happens to be continually sitting down. The culprit for our specific predicament is an entrenched professional culture of inactivity. We sit too much and we move too little. You're likely sitting as you're reading this. Most of the articles contained in this magazine were probably written from a seated position.

The majority of American professionals complete the bulk of their work from an office chair. In prior times, this may have slid by without concern, but, unfortunately, we now know better than to stand pat with the status quo. Office inactivity is gaining the tinged reputation of cigarettes. Prolonged sitting is commonly compared to smoking because of its wholesale damage to health.

Research continually suggests the correlation between prolonged sitting and a plethora of health concerns, such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and increased all-cause mortality. If that's not enough, office inactivity hits companies where they really hurt -- efficiency and bottom line.

Unhealthy employees are more frequently absent, less productive and more expensive to insure. Idle workplaces have also been found to be less creative and energetic, resulting in reduced productivity and, as a result, lower profits. If most businesses knew that they could reduce healthcare spending while simultaneously improving employee productivity, we likely wouldn't have the institutional resistance to change that hinders considerable progress.

Improvement is possible, and it's more effective and easy to implement than one might think. First things first, we can't let the work associated with the solution intimidate us more than the problem itself. Bad habits can be reversed by confronting the issues that caused the problem initially and through dedication to proper practices moving forward. Trust me, I know, because I've had to fix this problem myself firsthand. Even at LifeSpan, a company specializing in personal fitness, we realized that it was time to make a change.

Research has shown that exercising every night isn't enough to undo the damage inflicted by chronic sitting. Our company had to evolve. We had to grow. We had to get our employees educated, engaged and empowered, and we had to in a way that transformed workplace motion into a culture. Getting employees to accept this philosophical change required incredible dedication from management and implementation at an individual level.

There is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to wellness or increased activity. We informed staff of our commitment to improve their health and fitness. We made clear that we wanted to help them lower risk factors and improve health on their own terms and in their own style, rewarding them along the way for efforts.

If they were interested, they would be provided free enrollment in LifeSpan's comprehensive wellness software, provided weekly information about health topics pertinent to their interests and given readily available ways to improve their activity levels. To help guarantee success, we made treadmill desks and bike desks available in our common spaces and, when requested, paired with each employee's traditional desk.

Treadmill desks and bikes were also visibly placed in the offices of upper-level management, displaying the company's collective acceptance of the movement. For those who preferred to use customary desks or did not have standard office positions, activity trackers were made available to record motion throughout the day.

Regardless of how information was collected, via the treadmill desk or bike's Bluetooth app or through activity monitors, incentives were provided to every individual who accomplished a daily step goal and to those who improved their activity the most from month to month. To put simply, we made practical, achievable changes that showed our workforce we truly cared about their health.

Our genuine dedication was met with impressive employee commitment, when 71 percent of staff participated in the program. After 20 weeks, 30 individuals had accounted for more than 23 million steps -- roughly 12,000 miles -- a large portion of which was accomplished from their new active workstations.

During this time, we noticed substantial increases in workplace energy, employee productivity and improved office morale. There was no sweating, no raucous behavior or disruption of our professional environment, just a gentle pace toward better living. The end goal of continued cultural change has been overwhelmingly positive, as activity levels have remained high despite the first stage of the program coming to a close.

When we begin round two in the coming months we anticipate that we will grow in participation and, ultimately, achieve even better employee health year round. LifeSpan's success isn't magic and it isn't exclusive.

It's possible for every business that's willing to break away from convention and address the growing movement of workplace activity. We are proud to be working with the Corporate Wellness Magazine to help improve productivity and reduce healthcare costs, one-step at a time.

About the Author

Peter Schenk is the president and CEO of LifeSpan, a Salt Lake City-based company that provides easily-implemented workplace activity strategies to improve the health of companies both big and small.

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