Getting Healthy at the Workplace

Companies can improve health and boost productivity

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

It's easy for workers to fall into a rut of unhealthy habits. Most jobs don't make it easy or convenient to eat right and exercise. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Both employers and employees have a lot to gain from investing in health together — think lower insurance costs, healthier and happier employees and greater productivity.

That's the philosophy of Chris VanBerg, president of Corporate Fit. Corporate Fit is an Austin, TX, company that provides personal training and nutritional guidance services to businesses.

VanBerg, a former personal trainer, works with companies to assess the health of their employees. Together, they formulate a plans to work toward better health and well-being.

A big part of that, VanBerg said, is to make healthy habits easier to maintain in an environment that doesn't naturally encourage physical activity or wholesome food.

dailyRx News spoke with VanBerg about why and how workplaces should invest in improving employee health.

dailyRx: What's the baseline here? Can you describe the state of the average worker's health?

VanBerg: For every company we do, we'll do a “State of the Union.” Through biometrics, physical tests, and health risk assessments, we can figure out what percentage of the company is obese.

The national average is that 70 percent of population is overweight and that 35 percent is technically obese. Other than that, you have a huge percentage of the population that has high blood pressure, high cholesterol or is diabetic.

We create plans for companies. If any of those percentages [for measurements of good health] are way off, the goal is to make a reduction. Blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, all three can all be changed by diet, as well as by their weight.

We're trying to provide the education that doctors don't necessarily provide because that takes more time than doctors have to spend with patients.

What are some of the bad health habits in the workplace that you see?

So many offices don't have places to work out or stay active. You spend more time of your awake hours at work than anywhere else. If working out is not convenient for you, it's going to be difficult for you to integrate that into your life.

That's one thing from a corporate aspect, to make exercise available.

[The second bad habit is] the food and drinks provided. Coffee is generally provided, as well as carbonated beverages.

Maybe providing sodas for people to drink every day isn't the best way to do it. You should think about tea and water.

In terms of the food provided — companies don't want people to leave their work desk, or stay and work as much as possible. They'll bring in candy bars and sugar, pizza, hamburgers.

They should be thinking about healthy food, so that their people can stay at more consistent energy levels. When people's insulin levels go up and down, it makes it harder to concentrate.

If you have too much sugar in your system, it's harder to stay focused, just like kids in school. If we regulate diet better, and their insulin levels stay more consistent, they're able to get more work done than just taking in sugar so they're not falling asleep at their desk.

It's conscious things that companies do, but unconscious in that companies don't realize that it's bad. If you provide food, people are going to eat it. But they don't realize it's going to throw off their whole day.

So how does this affect overall health?

Taking in a lot of calories and not expending any calories is always a bad deal. We understand that people should learn to instill activity even while they are at work.

Even if it's just stretching in the cubicle to correct posture. Your hip flexors get tight, which leads to lower back pain. We're not meant to sit that way all day and our muscles tighten up.

Taking exercise breaks should be promoted, not discouraged, because it means employees are not working. They need to move around. It's just our nature.

Why is being healthy at work essential to overall health?

You spend more time at work than you do anywhere else, in terms of your awake time. If you can't be healthy at work, it's going to be hard to be healthy the rest of the time, wherever you are.

It's about making it easy for people to be healthy at work, whether it's just having a small kitchen to cook, or promoting people bringing in good food from home. If you can't be healthy at work, you're not going to be healthy on the weekends, when it's more challenging.

When I help people with diets, if they are healthy at work through their workweek, they're going to be doing so much better on their diet. When the weekend comes and they're less healthy with what they eat or drink, it's OK, because most of the time they're still eating healthy.

Why should both workers and employers be invested in health at work?

From a personal perspective: you need to have as much energy as you can to get work done. Taking care of yourself should always be a priority.

If you wait to get sick and you're reactive, it's harder to get back to healthy than it takes for you to stay healthy.

That leads to better savings. Doctor visits, sick time — these things cost you money. If you think about what you spend on prescription drugs, think about what you're doing to your daily budget.

From the company perspective, there's lots of benefits. If people are eating healthy, and being healthy, they have higher energy, improved morale, less doctor visits and sick time, fewer claims and less prescription drugs.

The company gets savings from less claims. Employees are feeling better and acting better, and getting more work done on their own.

It doesn't have to be something that the company imposes, but if the workplace can provide access and availability to being healthy, you are not forcing them to do anything but you give them a better avenue to health — at the place they spend most of their time.

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Review Date: 
August 20, 2012