The top walkers reached 500,000 steps. In all, participants logged the equivalent of 447,000 miles.

Make Your Move: Weave Exercise Into the Work Day

The key to making exercise part of your lifestyle is finding a routine that’s sustainable.

When the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., prepared to open an on-site fitness facility for its employees, it found that a lack of time was cited as a major barrier to exercise. Or, rather, a perceived lack of time was a barrier. Employees didn't realize they could successfully make exercise part of their day with a little bit of planning.

Overcoming the no-time-to-exercise barrier is not accomplished without some effort, but it can be as easy as 10 plus 10 plus 10, noted Beth Warren, director of the Mayo Clinic's Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week, and this daily dose can be broken into three 10-minute sessions of moderate activity such as walking.

"A lot of people dismiss this idea," Warren said. "They think a walk during their morning break, lunch, and their afternoon break does not add up, but it does. They can receive the same benefits as an individual who does that in one bout."

The benefits of daily exercise are numerous. It makes your heart work more efficiently, lowers blood pressure, relieves tension and anxiety, increases the flow of oxygen to your brain, and reduces the risk and severity of diabetes. There's also a financial payback; the American Heart Association estimates physically active people save $500 a year in health care costs.

In addition, employers reap rewards when workers make fitness a priority. The association estimates employers can save $16 for every $1 spent on health and wellness; reducing health risks can increase productivity, decrease absenteeism, and lower health care costs.

Receiving the benefits of a healthy lifestyle is not as simple as promising to make exercise a priority. Results come from following through on a wellness pledge by making daily choices that encourage activity. This can include taking the stairs rather than the elevator, parking in the corner of the lot, or getting off the bus a few stops early.

Setting Goals
The key to making exercise part of your lifestyle is finding a routine that's sustainable, and one way to do this is by striving toward a goal. At Michelin in Greenville, S.C., a walking challenge encouraged employees to weave exercise into their daily routine. (The tire manufacturer has approximately 6,000 employees in the Greenville area and 22,000 in North America.)

Participants were given pedometers. Those who met the goal of walking 145,000 steps in five weeks and 350,000 steps in 10 weeks received prizes such as a drawstring bag and a long-sleeved T-shirt. Ninety percent of the 3,500 participants did that -- and more. The top walkers reached 500,000 steps. In all, participants logged the equivalent of 447,000 miles, or enough steps to reach the moon and more than halfway back.

The program was a success not only because employees met the goal of accumulating steps, but also that it made them conscious of the need to make exercise a daily goal. "I still see people wearing a pedometer, even though we're not in a contest now," said Chris Mattern, Michelin's manager of worksite health and wellness programs in Greenville. "They got in the habit of using it, and they kept using it."

Small Steps
Michelin has made employee wellness a priority, offering fitness centers at its largest plants and health club reimbursements in other areas. While programs such as the walking challenge help keep exercise interesting and offer motivation, the company also reminds employees of the little things they can do during the day to improve their health.

Jamie Waggoner, a health improvement specialist with HealthFitness who works at Michelin's Greenville plant, provided customer service employees with resistance bands to do strength and flexibility exercises during the day. "The best tip that I have for office workers is to do your best to get up out of your chair every 60 minutes," she said. "Give yourself a minute or two physical activity break from the computer. Instead of calling, emailing, or instant messaging a co-worker, walk to their desk and ask them a question."

The Buddy System
Because it's easy for other things to get in the way of a commitment to fitness, daily exercise reminders are another way to bring wellness to the forefront. At the Mayo Clinic, signs near elevators remind workers of the benefits of taking the stairs. There are also 180 health champions from all levels at the 32,000-employee campus who advocate fitness by creating message boards, setting out brochures, and raising awareness of the organization’s fitness programs.

Warren said a buddy system is a great way to hold a person accountable for exercise. Arranging to meet a co-worker at a certain time for a walk reduces the chances that you'll back out of your commitment. "It's much easier to let yourself down than to let someone else down," she noted.

Mayo works hard to make its commitment to wellness visible throughout the organization. One of its leaders is known for walking meetings with team members, and its programs include help with stress reduction, nutrition, and weight loss. "We want to show a culture of health," Warren said. "Patients expect us to walk the talk."

Mayo's attentiveness to fitness has earned it Best Employees for Healthy Lifestyle honors from the National Business Group on Health each year since the program was initiated in 2005. Michelin has been honored by the organization for three years, and while its business is tires rather than health or fitness, its policy of rewarding employees for healthy behaviors has paid off. Since initiating its Choose Well, Live Well programs in 2008, it has seen an increase in productivity and a significant reduction in the number of employees at high risk for health concerns.

"We have seen people move in the right direction," Mattern pointed out. He added that Michelin's employees tend to stick around -- some have been there for 35 years. Health-related activities are a long-term investment in the workforce. "Manufacturing is highly competitive, and in order for us to compete we need to have the most productive employees in the world,” he said. “It makes sense to keep people healthy."

At-Work Exercise Ideas

  • Walk on your break: Walk around the building at lunchtime or during breaks in the work day. If your company has a walking trail, take advantage of it.
  • Stand when you can: If possible, work at a standing desk or place your laptop on a high table or counter. Stand while talking on the phone.
  • Meet while walking: Take a walk with a co-worker instead of sitting down for a meeting. A group can brainstorm ideas while walking.
  • Take extra steps: Park at the edge of the parking lot, get off the bus a few blocks early, take the stairs rather than the elevator, and walk down the hall to talk to a co-worker rather than sending an email.
  • Walk and work: Treadmill desks (treadmills with a desktop attachment) allow you to walk while reading emails or going through reports. It's also possible to attach a laptop to the top of a treadmill.
  • Keep equipment handy: Keep a resistance band or light weights by your desk. The band or light weights can be used for bicep curls.
  • Find a workout buddy: Arrange to meet a co-worker for a daily walk. This will hold both of you accountable for exercise.
  • Turn your commute into exercise: If you live near your workplace, walk or bike to work.
  • Remind yourself: Post exercise ideas next to your desk as a reminder to make exercise a priority in your day.

Keep your joints and muscles limber with the following stretches:

  • While sitting tall with your feet flat on the floor, turn your head to look over one shoulder and then the other.
  • Stretch the side of your neck to one side until you feel a stretch in the opposite side of your neck. Return to center and slowly tilt your neck to the other side.
  • Stretch your wrist by extending your arm. Face your palm forward. Grab your fingers with the other hand. Gently pull them toward you and hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
  • To stretch your chest, shoulders, and arms, stand up and bring your arms behind your back. Place one hand on top of the other. Slowly bring your elbows together while straightening your arms.
  • Sitting with your feet flat on the floor, put your hands behind your head with elbows out to the side. Bend from side to side at the waist to stretch your torso. To do the torso twist, keep your hands behind your head and twist your body to one side, so you are facing the side wall. Twist from your waist and let your head follow your body.

Use Resistance to Your Advantage
If you work at a desk, keep a resistance band in a drawer. For a few minutes every hour, use it for strengthening or flexibility exercises. Here are some suggested exercises from Jamie Waggoner, a health improvement specialist with Michelin:

  • Seated chest press: Place the resistance band around the back of your chair. Grab onto both ends of the band. Start with your arms parallel to the floor at chest level and press forward until your arms are extended, with a slight bend in the elbows.
  • Bent-over row: Standing up, place one foot forward into a lunge. Keep your front knee behind your toe. Grabbing both ends of the band (one per hand), step on the center of the band with your forward foot and bend forward at the waist. Maintain a tight core to support your lower back. Pull the band straight back, pointing your elbows toward the ceiling.
  • Bicep curl: Stand, placing the center of the band under your foot (or both feet for added resistance). Hold the band down at your sides, with palms facing outward. Bending at the elbows, bring palms toward shoulders until elbows are fully bent. Pause, then slowly extend the arms back down to the starting position.
  • Shoulder shrugs: Improve your flexibility by standing on the center of the resistance band with legs hip-width apart and toes pointed forward. Grasp the band in both hands so that it is taut when your arms are hanging down at your sides. Roll shoulders front to back. Then lift and lower shoulders.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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