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Studies laud work-site exercise programs
Participants healthier, cost employers less in health-care premiums

SHARE Studies laud work-site exercise programs
Participants healthier, cost employers less in health-care premiums

WASHINGTON -- An exercising worker is a happier and healthier worker and may even save the boss a bit on health insurance if the worker joins the corporate wellness program and stays with it, studies find.

"Enthusiastic participation in work-site wellness programs can yield a variety of health benefits," said Dr. Roy J. Shephard of the University of Toronto. "However, only a minority of employees participate in work-site wellness programs, and even fewer have the enthusiasm needed to achieve health benefits."The programs put exercise equipment and health advisers close to workers. And the programs have an added incentive -- the company picks up at least part of the tab.

The result should be that workers' health should improve. And Shephard's review in a medical journal, The Physician and Sportsmedicine, reports that it does. For instance, studies found body fat fell 13 percent on average.

But weight losses are smaller -- around 2 percent -- when they are averaged across entire companies, including people who don't take part in the programs, the report said.

Participants also were able to lower their blood pressure, and a relative few -- 1 percent to 3 percent -- quit smoking, the article said.

Workers also can increase their aerobic power, but the amount reported depends on how much aerobic exercise they do and how carefully the company tracks the results, Shephard said. At a pioneering wellness program at Johnson & Johnson, the maker of health-care products, women gained 7.4 percent and men gained 4.4 percent after two years, compared with people who did not take part.

Exercise commonly makes people feel better, and working out at work is no exception, Shephard said. Exercisers report more positive mood states. However, studies also have found that workers who worked out didn't necessarily improve their job satisfaction as a result, he said.

The bottom line for a boss may be whether the program saves money on health care. The answer is yes, but not a lot, Shephard said. Studies find medical claims for health care are $100 to $400 less for people who take part in company-sponsored wellness programs, he said.

And program participants take a little less sick time -- maybe a half day per worker per year, he said. "This may reflect an improved mood state or an increase in organizational loyalty rather than improved health," he said.

On the other hand, beginning exercisers may take a bit more time off with aches and pains they blame on their workouts, Shephard said.

Overall, however, the programs seem worth the employers' commitment, the article said. "The cumulative benefit has been estimated at $500 to $700 per worker per year, enough to cover the cost of a modest wellness program," it said.

The problem is in how to get workers to join and stay with the programs. That's not easy, because an estimated 25 percent of Americans do no exercise, noted Dr. Nicholas A. DiNubile, an orthopedic surgeon in Havertown, Pa. Physicians can encourage corporate fitness by speaking to executives about the cost-effectiveness of corporate fitness programs, he wrote in a separate article in the same issue of the medical journal.

And companies may see non-health-related benefits for wellness programs where there's a lot of corporate competition for quality employees, commented Tim Larson, human resources manager for Apple Computer Inc. at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.