On Sept. 14, thousands of employees from hundreds of companies will revisit a coveted perk of their grade school days by taking a 10-minute break for recess. Leaving their desks and trotting outside for Worldwide Recess Day, they'll be encouraged to jump rope, play tetherball, walk a dog, do yoga, ride a bike or shoot hoops.
The brainchild of leaders at Portland, Ore.-based outdoor footwear manufacturer Keen Inc. and Dr. Toni Yancey, author of Instant Recess (University of California Press, 2010), the program aims to prove the simple notion: Promoting a paid activity break–one that includes even short periods of movement–during the workday benefits employee health and well-being and may increase overall fitness over time.
"Taking a break every day isn't just a good idea, it should really be workplace policy," says Evelyn Carrion, Keen's U.S. HR manager.
Launched in 2011 as an extension of the company's own wellness efforts, Keen's Recess is Back campaign has grown rapidly. The program includes a free HR toolkit to help other companies build a recess perk, track employee participation and calculate return on investment. Keen has supported recess at 170 companies to date, involving 83,000 employees.
At Keen, members of a recess council help drive participation and lead activities. And they mean business: "If someone feels they just can't break away," Carrion says, "we'll bring a hula hoop or jump rope to them."
The Recess is Back campaign isn't an isolated endeavor. Examples of the fitness focus abound:
- At Renfro Corp., a socks and legwear manufacturer based in Mount Airy, N.C., every one of its locations in six states now boasts outdoor walking tracks. At most sites, managers are striving to add indoor tracks, says Employee Relations Manager Carrie Darnell.
- Pegasystems, a software company based in Cambridge, Mass., gave employees Fitbits, thumb-sized devices that detect wearers' movements and track steps taken, distance covered and calories burned, says Janice Barker, senior director of compensation and benefits. The device has been a hit, she says, with requests for it pouring in from employees in China, India and Russia.
- Hartford, Conn.-based insurer Aetna Inc. partnered in April with Seattle-based interactive game company Mindbloom to offer Aetna employees and policy holders the Mindbloom Life Game. Participants digitally create personal life trees that add leaves as users set goals and perform tasks like doing pushups or eating fruit.
- At Sprint Nextel Corp., based in Overland Park, Kan., employees formed teams of 11 from coast to coast as part of the Sprint Get Fit Challenge to compete in three categories: exercise minutes, steps taken and weight lost. More than 14,000 employees participated– 35 percent of the workforce–and they collectively lost 41,000 pounds in 12 weeks, says Sandra Price, senior vice president of human resources.
- At Google Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., a growing number of employees are opting for standing desks, according to spokesman Jordan Newman.
- In Louisville, Ky., health insurer Humana Inc. has installed 40 Walkstation devices since 2008. These low-speed treadmills with integrated desks and laptop hookups are popular with employees, who use them while they read reports or return phone calls, says Brent Densford, chief of staff for government business and former director of well-being and innovation. The machines cost about $4,300 each from maker Steelcase, based in Grand Rapids, Mich.
So what's driving the fast-moving trend, and does it always deliver intended results?
Driving the Rush
The benefits of regular physical activity as a contributor to health are numerous and well-documented, of course. And there's fresh evidence that employers of all sizes are getting serious about encouraging employees to get active and build fitness into their daily routines, even during work hours. A June Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey of 550 HR professionals found that 20 percent of organizations offer on-site fitness classes, up from
16 percent in 2011.
Employers are reacting in part to research showing that Americans continue to struggle with obesity and inactive lifestyles, which in turn contribute to employers' rising health care costs.
Obesity in the United States, in fact, is projected to continue its rise during the next 18 years, extending to 42 percent of Americans by 2030, up from 35.7 percent today, according to a May report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The expanding girth will be expensive. Researchers estimate that additional spending on health care for those who join the ranks of the obese is projected to reach $549.5 billion in the next two decades.
In a recent study, scientists at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge found that the decrease in workplace physical activity in the past 50 years has contributed significantly to the obesity epidemic.
In the 1960s, more than half of all jobs included moderate physical activity as opposed to less than 20 percent today, according to the study published in the May 2011 science journal PLoS ONE.
"Yesterday's jobs have been replaced by sitting or sedentary activity," says lead study author and Pennington scientist Dr. Timothy Church.
Analyzing data from 1960 to 2008, the researchers concluded that men now expend 140 fewer calories each day and women 124 fewer calories. The findings, Church suggests, should pressure employers to step up initiatives that focus attention on physical activity at and outside of work.
While it's unlikely that the long-ago levels of physical activity can ever be fully restored to today's jobs, "if we're going to try to get to the root of what's causing the obesity epidemic," Church says, "work-related physical activity needs to be in the discussion."
Jason Parrish is one of the 44 regular recess-takers at Keen's 132-employee headquarters. The 39-year-old information technology manager credits the break with helping him lose 10 pounds in less than two months.
"It helps get the blood flowing after sitting for long periods," he says. "I look forward to it, and it gives me a little goal every day."
Goal-setting pays off, suggests a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Georgia in Athens, who followed 1,442 employees at eight U.S. Home Depot sites.
For three months, employees set weekly personal and team physical activity goals and earned incentives like T-shirts, coolers and catered lunches for meeting them. Each team of five to 20 employees had a captain whose mission was to motivate members to meet goals and earn team points.
After six weeks, 51 percent of the participants were doing at least five 30-minute moderate exercise sessions or two 20-minute vigorous sessions weekly–up from 31 percent at the study's launch. Meanwhile, only 25 percent of those in a control group of nonparticipants logged similar exercise sessions, according to the study published in the February 2009 edition of the Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Participants maintained increased levels of activity throughout the study and few dropped out, says Rod Dishman, lead researcher and a University of Georgia professor. "The biggest pleasant surprise was the steady and sustained progress," he says. "That can probably be explained by the social incentives and support from personal goals and achievements that had direct impact on team success."
Home Depot's program, dubbed Move to Improve, is based on the idea that setting realistic exercise goals–in this case, gradually increasing weekly exercise times by 10-minute chunks–can help people get and stay active.
"Personal and team goals work best when they are self-set; specific about how much activity and when; realistic but attainable; and easily assessed, such as by weekly logs or pedometer steps," Dishman says.
From May to September each year, more than 180,000 employees worldwide participate in the Global Corporate Challenge, a huge workplace wellness initiative meant to get sedentary employees moving and increase awareness of the need to exercise. The challenge is organized by Get the World Moving Ltd., an Australian-based company that charges $69 to $99 per participant, with organizations that sponsor more than 5,000 employees paying the lowest fees. Now in its ninth year, the program draws participants from about 1,500 companies in 98 countries.
Participants receive a pedometer to count the number of steps they take, with a goal of 10,000 per day. They form teams of seven and earn points for total steps taken. The teams' points then help them move across the virtual globe. Starting in London on May 24, teams have 16 weeks to walk across more than 130 destinations–without leaving home.
A summary of 26 studies by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif., showed that pedometer users walked at least 2,000 more steps each day than those who didn't wear the devices. Using pedometers helped people increase their physical activity by 27 percent, according to the research published in the November 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Subsequent studies offer similar findings, with the caveat that pedometers' effect on activity may wane over time.
In May, 7,000 employees from London-based pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca PLC were gearing up for the virtual walking tour. Last year, the company won the title World's Most Active Organization after 5,432 employees collectively logged more than 6.5 billion steps with a companywide average count of 13,000, says Sue Connelly, global health and well-being manager.
"We've had year-on-year increases in the number of teams participating–from 43 teams in our first year ... to over 780 teams in 2011," she says. "Our employees report feeling fitter and healthier, and in some cases benefit from a welcome reduction in overall weight. We gain by having healthier and more energized employees."
Home Depot, AstraZeneca and many other employers have adopted the team approach to wellness, and new research suggests that teamwork may help boost fitness in fundamental ways.
For example, researchers from The Miriam Hospital's Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center and Brown University in Providence, R.I., analyzed the results of the 2009 Shape Up Rhode Island initiative. The statewide nonprofit campaign featured a 12-week online weight loss competition where participants joined teams and competed in three categories: weight loss, physical activity and steps taken. The contest included 3,330 overweight or obese people on 987 teams.
Those who lost clinically significant amounts of weight–or at least 5 percent of their initial body weight–tended to be on the same teams. Interestingly, those who reported more teammate influence increased their odds of achieving this level of weight loss by 20 percent, according to the study published in the July edition of the journal Obesity.
The study's lead author, Tricia Leahey, an assistant professor at Brown's Alpert Medical School, concluded that social networks fuel weight loss and health.
Setting realistic exercise goals—even increasing time in 10‑minute chunks—can help people get and stay active.
"We know that obesity can be socially contagious, but now we know that social networks play a significant role in weight loss as well, particularly team-based weight loss competitions," she says. "In these team-based campaigns, who's on your team really matters."
Moreover, Leahey notes that captains tended to lose more weight than team members, possibly due to their increased motivation and engagement in the campaigns. Leahey says organizers of future fitness competitions may consider requiring team members to share leadership roles.
"We're all influenced by the people around us, so if we can harness this positive peer pressure and these positive social influences, we can create a social environment to help encourage additional weight loss," she says.
Some corporate leaders report seeing enthusiasm for such tactics–and measurable results.
For the last two years during May, for example, 48,500 employees of Baxter International Inc. have been encouraged to increase their daily activities, track exercise minutes and compete to be named the Biggest Movers as part of a Global Exercise Challenge–one part of the health care and medical products company's BeWell@Baxter wellness program.
This year, 10,000 employees at 150 locations logged more than 100,000 hours of lunchtime walking and cycling, rock climbing, yoga, swimming, running, spinning, and line dancing. That's up from 9,000 employees at 104 locations in May 2011, says Jeanne Mason, Baxter's corporate vice president of human resources.
"Employees seem to enjoy the teamwork, camaraderie and friendly competition that come from participating in these activities with their peers," Mason says. "Most importantly, we've seen a positive impact on employees' health."
Using data from employees' personally reported wellness profiles, Mason says she's seen a decrease in key health risks such as heart disease, diabetes and smoking.
Mason credits the Deerfield, Ill., company's environment, health and safety group, and HR representatives at larger sites–called BeWell Local Champions–who work together to devise effective programs for their communities.
"This structure allows for creativity, flexibility and a local sense of ownership," she says.
A few employers are taking a more intense approach.
Bill Holmes, head of HR at Reebok International Ltd., has 20 employee testimonials posted in front of his office at headquarters in Canton, Mass. Each describes a personal fitness story as a result of the sports apparel company's sweeping effort to improve employee health.
"We've created a movement," he says.
The company partnered with Washington, D.C.-based fitness consultancy CrossFit Inc. two years ago and converted a brick warehouse at Reebok headquarters into a CrossFit center with six coaches and a variety of equipment.
CrossFit workouts are considered aggressive strength and conditioning routines by many, but they're tailored to any skill level. Police academies, military training units and professional athletes use the method.
Globally, nearly 1,000 of Reebok's 8,000 employees are active participants, Holmes says. Nearly 100 have completed the CrossFit Level 1 trainer course. And 400 employees a week complete CrossFit workouts at the headquarters' facility.
But what about those employees who choose not to join in and are left behind at their desks? After all, there is no way to ensure that everyone will participate, and the first to do so tend to be fit already–and highly motivated.
Employers' well-intended efforts in promoting physical activity may inadvertently create "almost a class system of the fit and the unfit," says Steve Miranda, managing director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and former chief human resources officer for SHRM.
A portion of employees will feel that their organization's leaders shouldn't make health and well-being decisions on their behalf, he says. To address these perceptions, Miranda recommends letting word-of-mouth carry your program. "Employees put a lot of weight in what peers say and will tend to be more motivated by peer messages than by words from those who roll it out."
And make sure the program supports incremental activities for every fitness level. "Don't focus only on how this benefits the company; show how it benefits the individual," Miranda says.
"Employers must be aware of all the unintended consequences their wellness efforts could create," says Paula Brantner, executive director of Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit employee rights organization in Washington, D.C. Issues of privacy, age, disability, lifecycle or lifestyle choices interact with health and well-being status and can impact how employees respond.
Brantner has heard some employees' concerns. "Say an employee is injured during an employer's fitness competition," she says. "They may respond negatively because they have to take lots of sick leave. Some employees also may look at these programs as increasing work stress: 'Is this one more thing that my employer's making me do? I've already had a long day, now I have to check on my employer-required exercise quota?' "
Even teams and friendly competitions don't appeal to everyone. "People learn and participate in many ways," she says. "Some people are joiners; some are not. Anything that pits employees against each other has the potential to backfire."
The bottom line: "Create a wide variety of voluntary wellness choices that do not penalize but that encourage in positive and individual ways," she says.
As HR leaders continue to devise fitness strategies, the challenge will be to find ways for employees to adopt long-term activity–rather than generating temporary buzz around an incentive, team competition, game or goal.
"A lot of effort is spent around promoting wellness and activity, but the impact on sustainability of results is unclear," says Michael Thompson, principal of the human resource services group in the New York office of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. Corporate leaders "probably spend more time on nutrition than activity–yet getting employees moving may be the most profitable and sustainable course of action."
The author, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a business journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area.
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