Here’s a question I never thought I would ask my boss: “Is it okay for me to bring Denise Austin to our next staff meeting?”
I had invited the fitness guru to the offices of Express to help debut my plans for a daily activity break. My pitch to her was that we’d gotten too glued to our desks in the process of putting out the commuter newspaper owned by The Washington Post and needed encouragement to take “recess.” To my surprise, she said yes. My boss did, too.
Which brings us to a morning in late January, when Austin burst into a conference room and demanded that various people touch her tummy.
Her abs turned out to be quite the icebreaker — and rock-hard, in case you were curious. I’d gotten several skeptical looks, and even a few grumbles, when I’d explained to my co-workers what we’d be doing. But Austin mesmerized the room instantly.
She has plenty to say on the subject of exercise at work. Austin, who lives in Alexandria, has been tackling the topic since 1983, when she wrote a pamphlet titled “Tone Up at the Terminals” for the company Verbatim. She might not have the typical desk job, but she travels frequently and can’t be on her feet as often as she’d like. So wherever she is, she makes it count by adding leg lifts and other simple strengthening movements.
That’s not a substitute for a workout, Austin said, and a couple of seconds certainly won’t give you much of a cardio benefit. But a quick stretch and a reminder that you have muscles can boost your mood, clear your head and help prevent some of the damage created by inactivity. “I’m a true believer that sitting still is our enemy,” she said.
It’s great if you’ve hit the gym before work, but that doesn’t absolve you from physical activity throughout the day. “I tell people to think of the day as 16 waking hours,” she said. “To implement fitness for 30 minutes is great, but what are you doing the other 151 / 2 hours?”
Back at Express, the grumbles were all gone. Instead, everyone followed along as Austin showed us how to stretch our arms over our heads and lean from side to side.
We twisted at the waist for some standing core work. We kicked and punched. And we were ready to fight our formerly sedentary ways.
Austin told us, “You’ve got to remind yourself, on the hour, do a minute,” so when I returned to the office later that afternoon, everyone was up with their arms above their heads. I thought I was launching an in-office exercise program, but I’d inadvertently started a cult. “If she’d told us to rob a bank, we would have done it,” said copy editor Adam Sapiro, whom Austin dubbed “Big Guy.”
For the next few days, practically the whole staff jumped out of their seats every hour to follow the moves she’d taught us. People marched through the office when it was time to convene for the daily news meeting. Austinisms became part of the vernacular. One favorite: “If you don’t squeeze your butt, no one else will.”
My most enthusiastic co-workers also helped me establish the 3 p.m. workout, a slightly longer break that involves a wider variety of moves. To get a sense for what people will actually do, we’ve experimented with several formats, including playing the warm-up segments of workout DVDs, going for group walks and cranking up some tunes for an impromptu dance party. The most successful innovation so far seems to be announcing that it’s “plank o’clock,” which means it’s time to gather in one corner of the office, select a motivational song, get down on the ground and hold the pose for a minute.
But a month after that staff meeting, it’s impossible not to notice that the initial zeal has worn off. People are still stretching fairly regularly, but it’s gotten tough to persuade them to step away from their cubicles and offices to do anything more than that. So the quest for the best recess activity continues.
Or maybe I can convince Austin to come back.