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by Donald B. Ardell, Ph. D.
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Wellness in the Headlines
(Don's Report to the World)

Design Innovations to Promote Fitness

Friday October 24, 2003

Americans are in such sorry physical condition that anything done by anybody that encourages any activity must be welcomed. In this spirit, it is good that a few companies and even school leaders are encouraging more movement and better eating in plant/office/school and industrial park design, as well as menu planning.

Such initiatives were the topic of a recent article in the NY Times entitled "Fight Against Fat Shifts to the Workplace" (October 12, 2003.) If employees won't exercise on their own, the thinking goes, we'll design the work environment in order that they have to move more than they might like just to get to work! I welcome this trend. After all, few companies can afford to do nothing--the cost of overweight and obese Americans was $117 billion in 2000 (and most included in that federal estimate three years ago are now even fatter!) At Union Pacific Railroad, for example, the proportion of overweight employees rose 40 percent in the last decade. The so-called American fat epidemic results in 300,000 deaths annually, many of whom are valued employees at the time of their demise.

It seems some companies, including Union Pacific, are willing to invest resources to make it more difficult for workers to be sedentary or, if you want to look on the bright side, to make it easier for them to get daily exercise. They are slowing down the elevators, requiring the parking of cars in remote locations and otherwise "encouraging" people to get off their posteriors more than they might otherwise choose to do.

According to one employee interviewed in the Times story, the very slow elevators at the office represent "a sinister plot to get us to take the stairs." Company reps admitted to the plot part but denied there was anything sinister about it. What's sinister about promoting health--and including stairwells with windows to make the experience of walking more enjoyable?

The leadership at Sprint had fitness in mind when they decided to keep employees from driving close to office buildings by closing the roads at its 200-acre world headquarters. The efforts at Sprint, to encourage a healthier culture through wellness design, is based on research showing that pedestrian-friendly places tend to promote better weight management. Everyone must park in outlying garages.

A train of sorts, like those used to transport handicapped passengers through airport terminals, is available, but it is a verrrrrrrrrrrrry slow train. Some say you can make better time crawling backwards. The lead architect on the project remarked, "We want people to get out of their desks and out of their offices and move around." (What are people doing IN their desks, anyway?)

However, I'm not so enthusiastic about the menu at one of these wellness design companies. To complement the exercise-boosting design features, they make available in the cafeteria prescription drugs for weight loss! This is NOT a wellness initiative of the kind that Dr. Halbert L. Dunn had in mind a half century ago when he invented and began promoting the concept!

No wonder Union Pacific is taking action--according to the Times story noted above, 54 percent of the company's 48,000 employees are overweight. Company officials estimate that a one percent change in this figure will save $1.7 million in injury claims and illness records. If they could change the percent by five or ten points, the savings would be $8.5 million and $16.9 million, respectively. For these reasons, wellness design experiments could be excellent investments. Money saved by shaving a few pounds off worker bottoms is almost as good as money earned--for company bottom lines.

Unfortunately, I also think all this is too little if not too late. The amount of activity the design changes will reinforce does not seem sufficient to make a difference in the metabolic levels or waistlines of workers. Unless the design changes are accompanied by persuasive messages and other supports that convince people vigorous daily exercise and sensible food selection are more than matters of taking stairs or a longer walk from a parking lot, the modest awareness facilitated by these "wellness design" changes will have little or no impact (except, of course, to prompt more grumbling by sedentary workers.)

Just the same, the trend is sufficiently interesting that it merits support. I wish the wellness design folks at Sprint, Union Pacific and elsewhere well. Any little bit helps but so much help is needed that little bits of change may not be enough to reverse the obesity epidemic. Let's look on the bright side and hope for the best.

Domain: purpose
Subdomain: applied wellness

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