Battling the Bulge, Trimming the Budget
Wellness Programs Keep Workers Fit and Help Employers Curb the Cost of Health Care

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2003; Page H06

If you happened to notice a large gang of office workers heading up to the Washington Monument on a recent Wednesday, running sprints, doing push-ups or simply walking along the trails on the Mall, there is a good chance you were witnessing Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson employees turning back the hands of time.

Their activity is part of a new program aimed at making up for all those office pizzas and birthday cakes and the long hours in front of the computer, where eating out of boredom and stress has caused a great many folks to be out of shape.

And more offices are working to fix what's wrong. At Fried Frank, a law firm with 315 people in its Washington office, 124 people -- of varying ages, states of health and titles -- are partaking in the third annual Fitness Challenge.

The program, which began March 22, is an 11-week wellness incentive program, designed to kick employees into shape. Those who participate are given a test designed to calculate their "health age" as opposed to their actual age. They then set goals, and teams of four win points for exercising, eating well and attending in-house wellness seminars.

The winning team gets 20 sessions with personal trainers at the nearby Washington Sports Club.

Michael Bell, 30, a first-year associate at Fried Frank, joined the challenge because of the "freshman 15" (or perhaps a bit more than that) he gained after joining the firm. Those 12-hour days "can just squeeze out that time you can normally go to the gym and work out," he said. "And because of the schedules we have, it's not always easy to get healthy food."

His goal is to fit into a shirt he had before he went to law school. He was about 35 pounds lighter then, he said.

Susan Bricken, a professional trainer at Washington Sports Club on F Street NW, applauds Bell and his colleagues. She and another trainer are leading the effort at Fried Frank. The desk-bound office lifestyle can lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues, she said. "They are sedentary, sitting in a position that causes lower-back problems. And that costs all of us a great deal of money to treat," she said.

Companies usually say they started an in-house wellness program to keep workers healthy, said Rich Little, executive director of Cooper Ventures in Dallas, a workplace wellness consultancy. "They're always going to say improve morale, attract employees and reduce health care costs," he said.

But, he added, as health care costs rise, the No. 1 reason will be cost. A wellness program is believed to help reduce health care claims, workers' compensation and the cost of absenteeism, he said.

Up to 95 percent of companies nationwide say they have some form of wellness program, Little said. But he believes that allows for a very liberal definition, by which something as simple as a brochure about nutrition can be considered a wellness program.

But for Tissie Boland, 58, a senior benefits coordinator at Fried Frank, who helped to implement, and takes part in, the fitness program, the reason is simply that the firm "wants to promote a healthy lifestyle."

"We're always trying to do things that are pro-employee," she said. And that is a benefit to the firm that wants to retain happy, healthy and hardworking employees.

Not to mention that working out with co-workers, which provides a built-in social support system, is a great incentive.

Alan Kaden, 47, a Fried Frank partner who is on a team with fellow partners, has witnessed that group support since he started the program. "People liked the idea, just doing things together," he said. He sees people around the office doing exercises at their desks, things the trainers taught them in an earlier seminar. "People have certain physical tendencies [at the office]. They are hunched over a computer all day."

In "An Economic Analysis of Adult Obesity," a study issued in October, the authors argue that more time devoted to work and less time devoted to cooking meals at home mean more people are partaking in the fried and sugary things often found in fast-food outlets, which contributes to obesity.

As part of the program, Fried Frank employees collect points for every 20-minute workout (usually on weekends or before work) and every fresh fruit or vegetable portion they eat. It helps that employees at law firms are typically competitive.

Ngoc Pham, 27, an associate at the firm, signed up for the program because her June wedding is creeping near. "It's funny to see people in the hall talking about 'What exercise do you think could target this area?' There are a lot of competitive personalities in a law firm, and that just helps the whole motivation to eat better," she said.

Jane Weizmann, a senior consultant at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a human resources consulting firm, has seen more people wanting to be in better physical shape. She believes it could be because employees in the Washington area are especially stressed out because of the war, the economy, last year's sniper shootings and this winter's rough weather. "Stress just plays itself out. We had such a hard winter. So many people really want to be in shape," she said. "I wonder if it's a personal control thing," as the rest of the world's happenings seem to be so far out of everyone's control.

The sports club's Bricken believes that could be the case. She had a surge in clients after Sept. 11, 2001, and finds people working out more now than during good economic and peaceful times. "Stress relief is a huge factor," she said. "People come here because they are drawn emotionally. They feel they shouldn't be doing frivolous entertainment. Coming in here and working out, at some level, they feel they are getting in better shape for whatever might happen."

The turnout Fried Frank's program this year is better than in previous years. But those I spoke to didn't think it's because of the war or other stresses. "We'd like to win the big prize," Boland said. "I've been working here for 15 years, and this has a turnout that far surpasses anything we've done."

For those like Bell, who doesn't work out in the morning because he's not a morning person, and who stays at the firm too late at night to hit the gym after hours, a workplace push toward eating better, and at least trying to get weekend workouts squeezed in, is invaluable. "When you spend so many hours here," he said, "it's great to have that constant support."

Join Amy Joyce to discuss your Life at Work issues Tuesday from 11 a.m. to noon at www.washingtonpost.com. E-mail her at lifeatwork@washpost.com.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company