Get executives involved, make sure program is flexible

Key ideas for improving participation in workplace fitness programs include making sure employees see the CEO sweating on the treadmill, and allowing them to take longer lunch hours.

Look for ways to make employees more comfortable participating in the program, rather than ways to make the program larger or fancier, says Nicholas DiNubile, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in Havertown, PA, and director of sports medicine and wellness at the Crozer-Keystone Healthplex in Springfield, PA.

These tips come from DiNubile; Judy Colby, RN, COHN-S, CCM, program director of The Workplace at Simi Valley (CA) Hospital and Healthcare Services; and Roy Shephard, MD, PhD, DPE, professor emeritus of applied physiology at the University of Toronto:

  • Get the executives involved.

    It’s almost a cliche that you need "upper management support," but this point is especially true with workplace fitness programs. Without executives working out alongside other employees in the fitness center or exercise class, the program can be seen as a benefit that the company only begrudgingly provides. That can lead to the impression that bosses don’t really want employees spending time working out when they could be toiling away at their desk or work station. "If senior management has a positive attitude and demonstrates by their participation, that filters down to other people," Shephard says. "If you’re trying to increase participation, focus on the executives. Get them in there, and it will be easier to get others in there."

  • Make the program very flexible.

    Don’t forget that workers will have many different concerns and demands on their time, not all of them work-related. If you set up a fitness program that only allows them to participate at certain times of the day, you may be forcing some workers to not participate. Work demands can prevent some workers from being in the gym first thing in the morning, for instance, and carpools or public transportation schedules can prevent some workers from hanging around after work.

    The ideal situation would be a fitness center that is available 24 hours a day, or nearly that much, so that individuals can visit at whatever time makes ongoing participation most feasible. Keep this problem in mind when scheduling exercise classes, also. "The more flexible a program is, the more it is going to be used," Shephard says.

  • Eliminate subtle discouragement.

    All your hard work in encouraging fitness program participation can be undermined by one supervisor’s nasty comment questioning why an employee was late returning from lunch. If it was because he worked out in the gym after grabbing a quick sandwich and couldn’t make it back in exactly 60 minutes, the message is that he shouldn’t try that anymore. Supervisors should be urged to make allowances for workers participating in the fitness program, even though that can be a hard sell. The easiest way to convince them might be getting them to participate themselves.

    "It’s one thing for management to say they encourage participation and another for them to actually allow employees the flexibility to use the program," DiNubile says. "If you ask someone to work through lunch and make one more deadline instead of going to the gym today, you’re sending the wrong message."

  • Provide different levels of participation.

    Some fitness programs fail to consider that workers will vary significantly in terms of their starting fitness levels and their interest levels. The fitness program should provide for their different needs, rather than assuming that one size fits all. "For some enthusiasts, the program won’t provide enough, and at the other end of the spectrum, some will find that it is too demanding," Shephard says. "The program should be designed so that it is flexible enough to accommodate both groups’ needs. Otherwise, you’re going to lose one end of the spectrum."

  • Provide incentives but not just for athletic prowess.

    Incentives can be a good way to encourage participation, but DiNubile cautions that they must involve more than just team or individual athletic competitions. Not all of your work force will be athletically oriented, so that type of incentive can have no effect or even discourage participation if you give the impression that the fitness program is intended for jocks.

    "A big goal is to involve those who are sedentary, so it’s not helpful if your incentives only target the type of worker who is starting at a high level of fitness and is oriented to athletic competition," DiNubile says. "Those rewards are fine for those workers, but the program needs other incentives for consistent participation, for instance."