Chick-fil-A president drives employees to run marathon

Emphasis on fitness impacts job performance

There are employers who grudgingly agree to employee wellness and health initiatives, and then there's Chick-Fil-A restaurant president Dan Cathy, who recruited 202 employees to train for and run in the Walt Disney World Marathon and Half-Marathon with him in January.

"When leadership on top rallies the troops, that's when everything happens," says exercise physiologist Elizabeth David, wellness director for Chick-Fil-A, a family-owned, Atlanta-based chain of more than 1,240 chicken restaurants.

"[President Dan Cathy] ran the Disney marathon in January 2006 with his son and two friends, and he came back and said, 'Elizabeth, I want 100 people to run the marathon with me next year," David recalls.

"I said, 'Yes, sir,' and then I thought, 'Oh my goodness, how are we going to do this?'"

That Cathy's wish for 100 employees to run the marathon was met and doubled comes as no surprise to David. Wellness — or "wholeness," as Chick-Fil-A calls it — is a theme integrated throughout the company's relationship with its employees and franchise operators.

"Chick-Fil-A cares so much about their employees, and about every aspect of their lives," David explains. "It's everything — exercise, financial health, and relationships."

Corporate culture of wellness

David came to work as the company's wellness director in 2004, when Chick-Fil-A partnered with Cooper Aerobic Centers. At first a one-person operation, the wellness program now employs three full-time and three part-time employees, including a registered dietician/nutritionist and a physiologist.

A 2,000 square-foot exercise facility gave way in 2005 to a 12,000 square-foot center designed "to create an environment so irresistible that it leads to a healthy lifestyle," she explains.

That gave the 600 employees in the Atlanta area motivation and resources, but what of the other 50,000 nationwide?

"Our challenge is getting out across country… how to motivate nationwide," David says. "This marathon was our first big push nationwide."

The marathon was the centerpiece event of the "2006 Mooooove Challenge," a campaign to get Chick-Fil-A employees and their families to commit to getting cardiovascular exercise by setting goals of entering local athletic events (walks, 5K races, bike races). Employees anywhere in the country access the program via a website with resources, training hints, and links to wellness staff.

"We're working on more ways to reach them," David adds. "A newsletter that's not read won't motivate anybody."

The marathon idea motivated employees company wide, even if they did not work toward entering the race.

"Everyone who participated [in the Mooooove Challenge] had to implement changes in their lives, and to hear people tell about losing 40 or 50 pounds, their blood pressure decreasing, their children and spouses more active — it's easy to see that this has greatly affected their lives," says David.

What motivates Cathy is a deep religious faith (Chick-Fil-A restaurants have always closed on Sundays so that employees could spend the day with their families and attend church) and a more practical goal.

"It's like when you know your parents love you and care for you, you will do everything you can to show your parents you appreciate and care for them," David explains. "We have something like a 97% retention rate for employees in the home office. Everyone who works for the company feels very appreciated, and when that is the case, it's paid back by the performance of the employee."


  • Elizabeth David, exercise physiologist, Chick-Fil-A, Inc. Address: 5200 Buffington Road, Atlanta, GA 30349. Phone: (404) 765-8038. Email: