In his college days, Justin Fishman hit the gym hard. He lifted weights four times a week in addition to practice as a midfielder on the Drexel University lacrosse team. Today, five years after he graduated, Fishman replaces sports with 65 hours of work each week for New York-based financial advisory firm Duff & Phelps (DUF). Fishman tries to stay fit by squeezing in a few 30-minute exercise sessions each week, but concedes the battle is often lost.
"It's just been brutal," Fishman, 28, says of his effort to balance work and working out. "I probably get to go twice a week on a good week." His normal work pressure has been compounded by particularly demanding clients: hedge fund and private equity firms under intense scrutiny to improve their returns. In February, Duff & Phelps also was engaged to provide valuation reports on federal bailout funds for Congress.
At a time of steep job losses and heavy workloads for many employees, the pursuit of exercise has become a lost cause for some and a renewed devotion for others. An active lifestyle isn't just important to employee health, either. Employers benefit from lower health-care costs, increased productivity, and generally happier workers. "Companies have the greatest interest in keeping people healthy because it does affect their costs and their bottom line," says Ron Goetzel, founder of the Institute for Health & Productivity Studies (IHPS), a group formed by health data provider Thomson MedStat (TRI) and Emory University. That's why employers are looking to on-site fitness centers, incentivized exercise plans, and competitive sports leagues.
A Lot of Sedentary TV Time
The inclination to promote a healthy, active lifestyle is natural at Herbalife (HLF), the nutrition and weight-management company. Los Angeles-based Herbalife hosts a basketball league, sponsors triathlons, and provides discounted protein shakes to its 1,300 employees. The company also replaced fryers in its cafeteria with heavily discounted organic, fresh food. CEO Michael O. Johnson is an avid triathlete, an example that sets the tone for managers and employees. "If you have a zealot at the top, they tend to support incentive-based programs for increasing exercise," says Michael Wood, senior consultant in health and productivity for Watson Wyatt Worldwide (WW), a human resources consulting firm.
A primary goal for companies is to get people moving. Despite the "manic energy" New York Times (NYT) columnist David Brooks says helps Americans work such long hours, most people enjoy heavy doses of downtime. The average American participated in sports, exercise, and recreation for only 19 minutes a day according to a 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Yet nearly 80% of those surveyed watched television each day—men for an average of three-and-a-half hours and women for more than three hours.
To address a sedentary lifestyle, Energy Corp. of America, a Denver-based natural gas distributor, doles out pedometers in the fall and asks employees to walk 8,500 steps each day for 10 weeks. That roughly three-mile routine has helped induce a culture of fitness beyond the 300 employees, who work in nine states, to their spouses and family, says J. Michael Forbes, ECA's vice-president. Coupled with on-site nurses, screenings, and personalized objectives, ECA is enjoying a seven-year streak of health-insurance costs that have not risen.
For Karen Anderson, the pedometer is familiar from her days at Apple (AAPL) working as an editor and writer. Before she left Apple three years ago, each week the Seattle resident commuted from Washington to Apple's Cupertino (Calif.) headquarters and says she was impressed by Apple's volleyball courts, walking trails, and culture of physical activity, which was promoted even during work hours. "I've never heard of anyone saying something bad about taking an hour off to go to the gym," says Armstrong. "Steve [Jobs] obviously wanted you to exercise but they weren't sanctimonious about it."
Exercise is one of the most effective cures for stress and laziness, two productivity killers. At the Purchase (N.Y.) headquarters of PepsiCo (PEP), the fitness center is always bustling. "Everyone is incredibly busy, but people realize that they can be more productive in the long run knowing they have worked out a couple of times a week," says Pepsi spokesman David DeCecco. Louis Haber, another Pepsi worker, makes time to work out despite a schedule that often keeps him at the office from dawn until dusk. "If it means getting up an hour earlier, I will do it because it's an important decision to me as a husband and as a father," Haber says. For a smaller company like finished-metal producer Lincoln Industries in Nebraska, the recession won't dull physical activity, but it might kill a trip to the Rockies. Each year, the company buses 71 employees to Colorado to trek up 14,000-foot peaks in the Front Range near Denver—Mt. Bierstadt, most recently—as a reward for participating in its wellness program.
For workers, exercise can yield not only overall better health but motivation. Marco Cabrera squeezes in weekday workouts before his half-hour commute to Livonia, Mich., where he works at CU-Village.com, a provider of Web sites, consulting, and services to credit unions. Cabrera says consistent exercise was his "dream" until mid-January, when he finally started his routine after consulting with his brother, a doctor. "I had actually reached a point of sheer desperation because all of my attempts to eat healthy and work out were a flop," he said. The answer has been waking up at 5:30 a.m. for workouts that alternate between lifting weights and tai chi. To save time, since he has a 10-month-old son, Cabrera runs sprints rather than long-distance jaunts. "My energy level has spiked, I'm happier," he says. "I feel like my whole life has gotten better for making that time."
For many, waking up at the break of dawn might not be feasible. Collier Case, director of health and productivity at Sprint Nextel (S), says in that case, workers can get active on breaks. Use 10-minute chunks of time throughout the day to build up a half-hour of walking, lifting, or running. For a more devoted plan, Internet fitness programs like "Workouts for You" provide private attention from personal trainers without the commute to a gym. Founder Lynn Bode says 1,500 companies use her service.
Traditional gyms such as Gold's Gym International and the East Coast chain Town Sports International Holdings (CLUB) saw increases in 2008 despite an economy that's seen increases in unemployment. Total membership at Gold's rose from 3 million to 3.5 million. New York-based Town Sports, which owns the New York, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia Sports Clubs, reported a 4.9% membership climb to 519,000.
Greg Spielberg is an intern at BusinessWeek.com.