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Health leadership: Be a mountain-climbing CEO

Joe Moore
Joe Moore is President and CEO of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). Moore also is a member of the advisory board of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease. IHRSA recently introduced the publication, "The Economic Benefits of Regular Exercise."

Consider this: Physically active employees take 27 fewer sick days and report 14 to 25 percent fewer disability days than inactive employees. And employees who exercise one or more times per week, regardless of their weight, have lower health care costs than their sedentary co-workers.

Now consider that employer health plans currently cover 60 percent of all Americans who have health insurance--and that illness and injury associated with an unhealthy lifestyle and modifiable risk factors can account for 25 percent of employee health care expenditures. In the state of Michigan alone, the total direct costs of physical inactivity for medical care, workers' compensation, and lost productivity were more than $8.6 billion in 2002.

Employers must become part of the solution and help their employees become more physically active. After all, when employees become sick with chronic disease brought on by unhealthy lifestyles, health care premiums rise and productivity drops. The associated economic burden falls not only on the individual but on the employer and co-workers as well.

Business leaders are already becoming personally involved in the effort to promote physical activity and wellness. Take, for example, Lincoln Industries' Chairman and CEO, Marc LeBaron. Every year LeBaron leads Nebraska-based Lincoln Industries' people in a challenging climb up a 14,000 foot Colorado mountain. To qualify for the climb, which includes a paid day off, an all-expense paid Colorado mountain climbing expedition, and transportation and lodging expenses--Lincoln Industries people must participate in 75 percent of the company's wellness programs, which include tracking their physical exercise, smoking cessation and health assessments.

Another example of personal leadership is John Sall, co-founder and executive vice president of SAS, a business analytics software provider based in Cary, North Carolina. Just recently, Sall led more than 100 colleagues in the SAS "Spin for Life," a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Sall encouraged scores of SAS employees as they pedaled spin trainers at the company's fitness center at a donation rate of $1 per minute. Besides raising money for cancer prevention and early diagnosis, the event spotlighted the fact that employee health and wellness are a corporate priority. On a daily basis, Sall leads by example by being a regular at the company's on-site pool and fitness center.

All told, working Americans are on the job an average of 7.56 hours per workday--that's about half their waking hours. So how can we possibly fix America's health woes if business and industry leaders don't become actively involved?

The National Physical Activity Plan lays out a vision that one day, all Americans will be physically active and will live, work, and play in environments that facilitate regular physical activity. The Plan aims to create a culture that supports physically active lifestyles. But its ultimate purpose is to improve health, prevent disease and disability, and enhance quality of life.

By embracing the principles and recommendations spelled out in the National Physical Activity Plan, businesses across America have everything to gain. They can reduce employee health expenses; lower rates of absenteeism; increase individuals' productivity and quality of work; reduce disability and workers' compensation claims; create a happier, more productive work force; and attract and retain talented employees.

The National Physical Activity Plan encourages businesses to take a leadership role in encouraging positive physical activity behavior change. Supportive workplace cultures and specific health-promotion policies are part of the answer. By leveraging community resources and using health benefits incentives, employers have the opportunity not only to reach their direct employees, but also to reach their employees' families and the broader community.

Employers can do things like make physical activity practices and policies, such as flextime for activity, commonplace. Or they can provide shower facilities so exercising during lunch breaks or immediately after work--before a long commute home--is an easier choice. From a business development perspective, companies can explore ways to expand their products, marketing, and sponsorship efforts to promote physical activity in the greater community. Corporations with large campuses might allow use of their property for physical activity recreation programs such as youth soccer, track, or softball. As well important, business and industry need to develop legislation and public policy agendas that promote employer-sponsored physical activity programs while protecting individual employees' and dependents' rights.

Not surprisingly, a growing body of research demonstrates the benefits of workplace wellness initiatives. For example, researchers at Brigham Young University studying employee health promotion programs have found that fitness programs are associated with reduced health care costs. Other researchers have documented a return of anywhere from $1.49 to $13 for every dollar invested generally in employee wellness.

While the most common wellness programs offered are gym memberships or discounts on exercise facilities and web-based resources for healthy living, the fact is that corporate wellness programs don't have to be costly or difficult to run. They can take the form of simple educational tools, such as posting a wellness bulletin board with ideas on how employees can build physical activity into their daily routines. Or a program can be as basic as incorporating a short physical-activity break into the workday. The best way to begin building a company culture of physical activity, health, and wellness is by taking small, simple steps.

As technology has advanced, businesses have made tremendous strides in improving efficiency, reducing redundancy of tasks, and maximizing what a company can produce. But the unanticipated side-effect is that we've engineered physical movement out of our workday. A great number of today's jobs are increasingly sedentary. And America's workers simply aren't getting enough physical activity.

With more than 65 percent of the civilian non-institutional population in the workforce, and as more and more people put off retirement, the onus is on business and industry to become part of the solution. And why shouldn't they? What's good for employee health really is good for business health as well.

Joe Moore wrote previous for On Leadership about the role of everyday leaders in making health-care reform a reality.

By Joe Moore

 |  June 7, 2010; 11:04 AM ET |  Category:  Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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