Get Your Employees Out and Walking

Benefits of a worksite walking program extend beyond better health

By Jennifer Slovis, M.D., Kaiser Permanente Northern California Apr 7, 2011
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Computers, e-mail, the Internet and smart phones have revolutionized the way America does business. Compared to manual typewriters and carbon paper, or pneumatic tubes that delivered handwritten messages between floors in air-propelled capsules, today’s workplace is a technological marvel.

But that technological progress has come with a price. Today’s workforce is far more sedentary than the workforce ofgenerations past. Instead of walking down the hall to confer with a colleague, we send an e-mail or text message. Instead of walking to the reference shelf to look up an obscure fact or figure, we use the Internet.

This has produced a heavier and less healthy workforce. The combination of reduced exercise and increased weight often translates into higher health care costs and lower productivity.

America’s obesity epidemic has roots that extend far beyond our jobs, but in the workplace, owners and managers can make a difference and help turn the tide. It's as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.

More Walk, Less Bulk

By encouraging employees to walk—on breaks, at lunch, before or after work—HR can help them become more fit. Walking outside or in the hallways, or using the stairs instead of elevators, are small efforts that make a big difference. The specific activity is not important. What matters is getting people up and moving.

As pounds drop off, overall health will improve, often including the ability to better manage chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. With improved fitness and health comes increased energy—a powerful antidote to the midafternoon lethargy that often leads to a slowdown in productivity.

Kaiser Permanente has established a campaign—“Every Body Walk!”—that encourages walking for better health. One aim is to encourage businesses to incorporate exercise in the workplace. For example, businesses can:

  • Set up a walking club and encourage employees to walk during their meals and breaks.
  • Better yet, set up several clubs and promote friendly competition.
  • Encourage employees to walk to work (if the distance is feasible) or to park farther from the door every morning. If they take mass transit, could they get off a stop or two early on their commute and walk the rest of the way?

The bottom line is to make moderate exercise part of a regular routine and to realize the health benefits that come from as little as 30 minutes of walking three or four times a week.

Employees come in various shapes, sizes and physical condition, so before starting an exercise program it's recommended that they check their health status with their personal physician—something that they ought to do every year, in any event.

Healthier and Happier

The benefits of participating in an exercise program extend beyond improved health and energy. Employees who walk together develop a camaraderie they might not experience otherwise. That camaraderie contributes to teamwork and unity of purpose, and physical fitness brings a more positive outlook to everything they do.

Jennifer Slovispractices internal medicine and is an assistant physician-in-chief at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center. She is active in Kaiser’s regional “Healthy Eating, Active Living” campaign (HEAL), and in “Live Well, Be Well,” the health care provider’s internal workplace-wellness program.

Don't Underestimate the Benefits of Walking

"Walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week, can cut the new cases of diabetes in half," said George C. Halvorson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente (U.S.), speaking at the World Health Care Congress near Washington, D.C. in April 2011.

"Walking also helps prevent and manage heart disease, stroke, depression/anxiety and asthma, and can lower the rate of certain cancers," he noted.

And you don't have to walk hours a day. "Research shows you can get the same benefit from a 30-minute walk in two 15-minute segments, one in the morning or around noon and the other at night," Halvorson said.

"The human body is made to walk; the biochemistry of the body is better when we walk," he observed. "We need our workplaces to be made walking friendly. We need to encourage workers to walk to meetings. Walking can improve workforce health in a big way."

-- Stephen Miller, CEBS, SHRM Online editor/manager.

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