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Employee Fitness, a Management Issue?

Submitted by • August 15, 2013

By now everyone should be aware of the ongoing fitness crisis we have in this country. You can’t miss it. The real question for savvy mangers is: do unfit employees hurt effectiveness in my organization? Maybe. If you agree that unfit employees get sick more often; make more insurance claims, tire more easily; think less clearly, handle stress less effectively, then yes they do cost you.

Where to start? Unless you are in the military, the sports profession, or first response agencies, you do not have many leverage points to insist on fitness. Savvy managers create the conditions for employee fitness by removing barriers and by promoting active lifestyles.  Here are a few activities that will encourage fitness.

  1. Get your unit involved in competitive team sports such as softball, soccer, or basketball through a recreation league.
  2. Provide time during the workday to allow employees to work out.
  3. Contribute to gym memberships.
  4. Insist that the company cafeteria provide nutritious options, and remove all vending machines from premises.
  5. Provide kitchen facilities to prepare food brought from home.
  6. Provide water coolers if fountains are not available.
  7. Form a weight watchers group on site.
  8. Start a “quit-smoking” program.
  9. Provide access to, and encourage the use of, substance abuse services when needed.

These actions are not enough if you constantly ask employees to give up on them under work pressure. To set the expectation for fitness, you have to do more.  Commitment to a fitness program requires showing that fitness is a real, instead of a stated, value.  Make time for fitness as important as any other business activity. And the most important way to show commitment? Be fit yourself. Leadership by example is the best way to get behavioral change.

To set an example, savvy managers need to know the best way to become fit. This is harder than it sounds because even though much research has been conducted on weight control and fitness, findings are contradictory. The body is a complicated structure with many checks and balances and individuals have unique physical profiles that determine their best physical fitness routines. Despite this variability, the following general observations should guide your fitness programs.

  1. The body is an open energy system. What this means is that energy that comes in must equal energy going out. Excess energy is conserved and stored as fat. Any argument about eating as much as you want because the food is “special” in some way or “burns fat” is bogus. The conclusion: calories count. (for most men average daily allowance should be between 2300 and 2600 calories; for most women, between 1900 and 2200 calories).
  2. Nutritionally, the body needs fats, carbohydrates and proteins. The best diet strategy is to avoid fad diets and to exercise portion control, which limits caloric intake. The only types of food to minimize in the diet are those that are highly processed and filled with preservatives . Highly processed foods are low in micro-nutrients and fiber which help fine tune the fitness system. Processed foods also have a higher probability of introducing contaminants, which can mutate genes in healthy cells into cancerous causing genes. The Weight Watchers program has proven to be the most effective approach to dieting.
  3. Fitness has at least four dimensions: cardio endurance (the ability of the lungs and heart to pump oxygen into tissues); muscle endurance (the ability of the muscle tissues to work over long periods of time); muscle strength (the ability of the muscles to work against heavy loads), and flexibility (the ability to extend range of motion around joints). Any fitness program should address these dimensions.
  4. Body composition, the percent fat one carries around, is not so much a component of a fitness program as an objective of a fitness program. For almost all males, this objective can be met by maintaining a waist size of 35 and under; for females, 29 and under. A rigorous and consistent fitness effort will achieve this objective.
  5. Cardiovascular endurance can be developed by engaging in moderate to high intensity exercise that stresses the lungs for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, to an optimum of 60 minutes a day five times a week.  Best exercises are jogging/running, bicycling, or rowing.
  6. Strength training is best accomplished through a weight training program using multi-joint exercises (bench press, dead lifts, parallel squats, clean and press, and bent barbell rowing). Multi-joint, full body strength training should be conducted no more than twice a week.
  7. Flexibility can be achieved by engaging in daily stretching exercises or by practicing a martial art or yoga.
  8. Research has shown that getting a minimum of 7 hours of sleep a night, drinking several glasses of water a day, and maintaining healthy teeth (by brushing and flossing often), have significant impacts on one’s health (and fitness).
  9. Finally, negative habits such as smoking and substance abuse are detrimental to fitness and should be eliminated altogether.

Few researchers would disagree with this list. The hard part is building a program that incorporates them and following that program consistently. The most common reasons given for not following a program are: don’t have time, have an injury that prevents exercising, don’t feel comfortable in front of others, too much effort.

Savvy managers do not skip exercising by giving themselves these flimsy excuses. All of these can be overcome, even exercising around an injury as long as the injury is not made worse. Holding yourself to standards of fitness and showing it in your behavior will encourage your employees to stick to their programs. And the more they stick to their programs, the more effective they will be, which has a direct affect on your success.

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