Fitness goes to the office

Working out may not be relegated just to the gym anymore, especially as more and more companies realize the economic value of healthier and more fit employees.
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Working out may not be relegated just to the gym anymore, especially as more and more companies realize the economic value of healthier and more fit employees.

But that doesn't mean a growing awareness of fitness will find a company's employees setting up home gyms or stationary bikes in their cubicles. Instead, that may mean employees simply being smarter about how they sit and move during the day, about the office furniture used and how it's used, and about the benefit of small snippets of exercise above and beyond the 30-minute workout, according to those SNEWS® interviewed.

For suppliers of gear and equipment, that could open another business door into several categories, including helping employees stretch, strengthen or use their core muscles during the day, as well as teaching them to use better ergonomics and to counter repetitive, injury-causing patterns. Suppliers of the rehab/balance and yoga/Pilates world -- such as Gaiam, Bell, Spri and Fitter First -- have already keyed into this trend.

The economics for the employer are simple: A recent U.S. Department of Health survey looked at 46,000 Motorola employees and found for example that health-care costs rose 2.4 percent for active employees, but more than seven times that figure (or 18 percent) for sedentary employees.

Balancing out with better ergonomics

"As hunter-gatherers we used our core muscles," said David Pierson, a Shelburne, Vt.-based, chiropractor and past president of the International Federation of Sports Chiropractic. "Sitting at the computer and typing is one of the worst positions you can put the body in. Lying down, there are 25 pounds of pressure on each disc in your back; standing, there are 150 pounds of pressure; sitting, there are 275 pounds of pressure on each disc. We're wearing our bodies out."

He and others recommend balance balls, inflatable seat cushions, wobble boards (to use during the day or as footrests) and other balance tools. And these aren't just for someone in pain, but for workers to use BEFORE they are at the point of no return.

One example: Four months ago, Sky Mall, an in-flight catalog with 150 workstations in its Arizona-based call center, distributed Fitter First's balance balls and wobble boards in the office (www.fitterfirst.com).

"It's been a big hit," said Jim Simpson, operations director of the call center. "It breaks up the monotony of the day, and gets people's blood circulating." Simpson says the balance balls not only help employees' posture, but add a feeling of festiveness appropriate to the office. And Simpson believes that the Fitter gear has contributed to more awareness of overall health among his staff.

Simpson himself said he uses one of Fitter's so-called Swopper stools in his own office. It's a desk-high stool with a base that's like a huge sturdy spring. Instead of being stationary, the user slightly tilts, sways and bounces while sitting. The theory is it keeps you sitting erect and using your abdominal and back muscles. One warning: Some experts say that balance balls as chairs or stools like Swooper could cause excess fatigue if used too long at once, especially by someone who is not fit.

Stretching/strengthening

John Gilman, owner and product designer of Funnction Fitness Equipment Inc. (www.funnctional.com) and a personal trainer, said he sees more stressed executives trying to fit fitness into their daily routine without leaving the office so he developed a tool that will help them find bits of time for short workouts.

"I train a lot of attorneys," Gilman said. "They don't have time to leave their office to exercise. So I bring a variety of easily transportable props and tools to their workplace. It inspired me to develop tools that anyone who works in an office can keep on hand in order to get a workout."

What Gilman has dubbed his Executive Chair Exerciser is an attachment that fits onto most office chairs. It's made of straps and resistance tubing that attach to the chair with hooks allowing users to do things like standing rows, hamstring curls, shoulder presses and biceps curls without leaving the desk. Heck, maybe even while in the middle of a conference call!

Pierson also recommends that people hang from a chin-up bar mounted in the office to help decompress the spine and return normal movement to the shoulder blades. It stretches chest muscles (palm forward with arm at chest-height and pulled backward slightly), which often get tight while sitting slumped over keyboards and desks.

Countering repetitive patterns

"Growing body awareness is at least partly arising from office-related disability that comes largely from sitting at a computer," Pierson said.

Recently, SNEWS® received a new product called the Yogawrap (www.yogawrap.com) to help offset a counter-productive habit. Basically it's a short length of foam encased in a stretchy material with long narrow "tie" ends so you can secure the foam pad onto your chair so it's positioned behind your upper back. The goal is to keep your chest open -- like in yoga -- but the application could be broader since it helps keep office workers from slumping.

SNEWS View: The SNEWS® main office is a bit of a playground too, with a couple of colorful stability balls that get used as chairs intermittently or as back releases during the day, balance boards to stand on during telephone calls or to use as footrests, hand exercisers to squeeze, a Yogawrap on a chair, and stretch ropes to lie on the floor and use (as if anybody can see that on the phone?). We think the line between ergonomics and fitness will continue to blur, and more companies will see the growing market. Spending a little money on keeping workers injury-free, comfortable and happy means less money spent on health care and sick leave.

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