In focus: In-house gyms

The government’s Foresight Tackling Obesities: Future Choices project has predicted that, if current trends continue, by 2050, 60% of adult men and 50% of adult women will be obese – putting themselves at risk of a range of chronic diseases, including diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease, cancer and arthritis. The costs to society and business will reach an estimated £49.9bn a year, at today’s prices.

The impact of the UK’s low fitness levels has already hit the workplace. According to a survey released by the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) and insurance providers Axa, absence from work cost the UK economy £13.2bn last year, with the average employee taking 6.7 days off sick.

Long-term absence continues to be a serious concern, accounting for 40% of time lost, and costing employers £5.3bn in 2007. And while more than two-thirds (69%) of organisations surveyed said they had a wellbeing policy – aimed at encouraging staff to lead healthier, happier lives – are these schemes actually working?

Individual responsibility

It was once up to the individual to manage their own health and fitness. But today, as we spend more and more time at work, and have further to commute, it’s becoming harder to find time for exercise. That’s why an increasing number of companies are providing on-site, subsidised, exercise facilities for their staff.

According to corporate fitness experts Nuffield Proactive Health, employers will see improved performance and productivity from a fitter, sharper team, while employees will benefit from greater integration as well as an improved level of fitness.

Dr Les Smith, of Health and Well-being UK, was a pioneer of the on-site gym, establishing one of the UK’s first for Scottish Power in the early 1990s, when the fitness industry was non-existent and even high-street gyms were “no more than a twinkle in [gym chain owner] Duncan Bannantyne‘s eye.”

Smith feels very strongly that corporate gyms should not exist in isolation, but instead be part of an holistic wellness programme, and helped set up the Scottish Power gym as the result of 7,000 staff being screened for potential health problems. The scheme involved running tests that are par for the course today, but unusual then, including cholesterol and blood pressure checks.

Change in behaviour

The resulting data told Smith and his team that a large number of staff were not exercising, but wanted to.

Seeing the need for a change in behaviour, Smith talked Scottish Power into providing gyms on several of its main sites. These became part of a wellness programme.

Staff who had been screened and found to have health problems would be referred to the gym, and employees who had to see the company physiotherapist – rather than taking away exercises to do on their own – were referred to the gym’s fitness trainers, who could then ensure the necessary exercises were done regularly and correctly.

Smith says: “It’s a daft idea to give someone free membership of an external gym as a corporate perk – they have no real motivation to go. This on-site gym was part of an integrated, holistic wellness programme, where physical activity was just one part of the system.”

Smith later moved to Pfizer, where he built on his experiences at Scottish Power, developing what he calls “the perfect triangle of good health – the physiotherapist, the psychologist and the gym”.

Reducing absence

“Do gyms work? Well of course they’re a nice thing to have from the perspective of somebody joining or considering leaving a company,” says Smith. “The cost savings around recruitment and retention will be considerable, but the biggest savings around having a gym on-site are in the reduction in sickness absenteeism – that’s the holy grail,” adds Smith.

Another expert convinced of the positive impact of exercise on absenteeism is Liz Yelling, marathon runner and Beijing Olympics marathon contender.

She says we should take investing in our health as seriously as any other investment – if not more so- and emphasises the importance of finding a space for exercise within the daily grind. She suggests staff specifically ‘ringfence’ time for activity.

As an elite athlete, Yelling is an obvious advocate of exercise, believing in its ability to build confidence and reduce stress. And physical activity is one of only three key methods recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence for the treatment of depression.

Given the evidence, the only mystery about corporate gyms is that there aren’t more of them – even the bean counters have to admit that they make sound financial sense, and the health benefits – mental as well as physical – are undeniable.

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