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Fitness on the Job

More and More Companies Offer Wellness Programs Meant to Trim Employee Waistlines And Pare Health Costs. Why Is It So Hard to Prove the Incentives Work?

By Rita Zeidner
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page HE01

Nan Ottenritter feels a new sense of purpose these days when she walks down Connecticut Avenue to pick up something for lunch.

A pedometer provided by her employer, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), lets Ottenritter track how many steps she takes each day. Recording her steps is a habit she picked up this spring when she and several fellow staffers competed for awards the association offered as an incentive to its most peripatetic employees.

American Association of Community Colleges staffers show pedometers used in an association-sponsored walking program, created by Charisse Bazin Ash, seated, center. (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)

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Ottenritter, 53, has long enjoyed weekend activities like bicycling and hiking. But it wasn't until she began wearing the pedometer throughout the day that she realized how sedentary she could be during the week.

"This contest -- with this silly little prize at the end -- it's got us thinking about how much we're walking -- or not walking, as the case may be," she said. "I didn't realize that on some days, I was only walking a few hundred steps. It's been a real eye-opener."

The view that employers can play a role in improving fitness among the rank and file is not a new one -- Sears, Roebuck and Co. was promoting healthy lifestyles among its retail workers in the early 1900s.

Nor is the belief, actively encouraged today by leading government health officials, that an employer's investment in workplace wellness programs can pay off by lowering health care costs, decreasing absenteeism and boosting productivity. Today some 95 percent of large employers -- those with 200 or more people on the payroll -- and about a third of smaller ones offer programs meant to improve the health of their workers (by helping them drop bad habits like smoking and adopt good ones like exercising and trimming excess weight) and curb rising health care costs.

Who could argue with such a demonstrably good idea, you ask? But it turns out the case for employer involvement in health promotion isn't yet clear-cut, say experts -- at least as concerns the bottom line.

Hard Case to Prove

Why isn't there more evidence of a dollar-and-cents payoff for employer fitness initiatives?

For starters, employees aren't exactly clamoring for wellness programs. On the contrary, worker interest in their employer's wellness initiatives is generally low, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). AACC's walking initiative may be a case in point. Despite initial enthusiasm, most employees lost interest after about a month, says Charisse Bazin Ash, AACC's human resources director.

But even long-standing programs haven't received the kind of scrutiny that allows a convincing business case to be built, say some public health advocates. The paucity of evidence was underscored in April when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earmarked $14 million to study workplace wellness programs.

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