Can We Catch “Healthy Lifestyles” from Our Co-Workers?



We know from research that obesity can spread through social networks like an infectious disease.

In fact, one model suggests that the rate of transmission has been steadily increasing and may result in an obesity rate that stabilizes at 42% of the population. Of course, research predicting a 42% obesity rate is troubling and alarming, but it also begs a very hopeful question for policymakers: can we start an epidemic of infectious healthy living?

The question has profound implications for wellness programming, particularly in the area of workplace wellness, where an individual can have long exposure to a static social network. For example, the Partnership for Prevention, in it’s publication Leading by Example: The Value of Worksite Health Promotion to Small- and Medium-Sized Employers, challenges organizations to “[d]efine, create, and sustain a culture of health that supports your health promotion goals and values.” By changing the culture of health, it is presumed, an organization can change the behavior of its social networks.

The Worksite Sector of the National Physical Activity Plan takes the idea one step further. The sector promotes the importance of creating not just a culture of health at the workplace, but also a supportive environment for physically active lifestyles. It’s a somewhat novel argument, but one rapidly gaining acceptance in light of the health and economic benefits of exercise.

The Worksite Sector – co-chaired by the American Council on Exercise, the American Heart Association, and the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association – is currently working on three strategies for promoting physical activity in the workplace:

  1. Identify best practices and model interventions;
  2. Develop a multi-communication and outreach plan designed to engage, inform and inspire leaders to promote active lifestyles in organizations, industries and local communities; and
  3. Develop legislation and policy agendas that promote employer-sponsored physical activity, while protecting individual employees’ and dependents’ rights.

IHRSA is thrilled by the progress of the sector, some of which was chronicled in the first edition of the National Physical Activity Plan e-newsletter. Driven by remarkable group of strategy leaders and advisors, the sector has begun to lay the groundwork for a fundamental and sustainable transformation of the workplace environment. If work is truly a second home for many Americans, we look forward to the day when the second home is as wonderfully active as the first.

In many ways, the sector approach of the National Physical Activity Plan resembles a grand experiment into whether we can create an epidemic of healthy living. It will be a study of whether the inspiration to live a more active life may be introduced and subsequently thrive in a particular community. Inspiration alone, however, will surely not be enough; it will take thousands of champions from every sector to push the experiment ahead, and I’m looking forward to compelling America’s worksite leaders to start pushing.

Do you know a worksite or business leader who would support the goals of the National Physical Activity Plan?