Healthy Worksites Create Healthy Communities



Safe and effective places for physical activity – such as bike paths, green space and fitness centers – are only half of the equation when it comes to establishing an active community culture. The other half is creating opportunities for community members to take advantage of the active infrastructure. And creating those opportunities, at a time when sedentary forces are overwhelming our cultural norms, is largely a function of policymaking.

There’s a role, of course, for national/state/local policymakers, but there is also an emerging, and very encouraging consensus that worksite policies promoting physical activity are critical to building healthier communities.

A recent study published by the PLoS One Journal underscored the importance of worksite policies encouraging physical activity and drew a direct connection to the obesity epidemic. The study found that “over the last 50 years in the U.S. we estimate that daily occupation-related energy expenditure has decreased by more than 100 calories, and this reduction in energy expenditure accounts for a significant portion of the increase in mean U.S. body weights for women and men.”

In other words, we’ve become less active at work and the decrease in activity has had a measurable impact on our nation’s obesity rate.

Barbara E. Ainsworth, the president-elect of the American College of Sports Medicine and an exercise researcher at Arizona State University, described the findings as a “lightbulb, ‘aha’ moment.”

“I think occupational activity is part of that missing puzzle that is so difficult to measure, and is probably contributing to the inactivity and creeping obesity that we’re seeing over time,” added Ainsworth.

Fortunately, it appears that corporate America is tightening its embrace of the benefits of a physically fit workforce. The Washington Post, for example, recently reported on a Mercer study finding that the “number of companies with 20,000 or more employees that provided fitness centers, subsidies or discounts grew by 11 percent from a year earlier.” The same article noted that a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that “the proportion of companies offering gym benefits has held steady since 2007. During the same period, many employers were paring retirement and other financial benefits because of the recession.”

As has been discussed in previous posts, the National Physical Activity Plan is leading the movement toward a more physically active nation, with a particular focus on harnessing the power of the business and industry sectors to transform the health of our communities and nation’s approach to wellness. In the coming months, the National Plan is expected to generate a CEO Pledge for executives dedicated to providing physical activity opportunities for employees, as well as best practices resources for creating an organizational environment that supports physical activity. I look forward to providing updates in this space as they become available.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from folks who have implemented corporate physical activity programs. What’s worked? What hasn’t?