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Executive Health: Business Stamina

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From the January 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

Area executives are training for fitness-oriented runs and bike rides and encouraging associates to join them.

A decade ago, researchers announced that the American life expectancy had declined for the first time in two centuries. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that obesity and its related maladies—including diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure—meant the average lifespan would be shorStened by five years.

But, perhaps, Americans with the help of their bosses can turn the trend around. In increasing numbers, business leaders are involving themselves in athletic events like fundraising runs and bike rides. And, inspiring their employees to do the same. Executives are putting time and money into wellness programs that encourage employees to take a holistic approach to life—balancing the physical, mental, spiritual and social.

The habits that go into eating well or training for a marathon bolster physical stamina, and these efforts are improving corporate health, as well. From lessening sick days and keeping morale high to lowering insurance premiums, a fitness mindset is proving a winner for corporations.READY TO RUN

Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the named beneficiary of the Columbus Marathon, is an example of how corporations actively seek good health. Officials say 258 Children’s associates ran in the 2013 marathon.

Kari DuBro, employee wellness program manager at Children’s, says participants received hearty encouragement as they prepared. That encouragement came largely in the form of lunch-and-learn classes on sports nutrition, long distance running, foot care and injury prevention. Participants were also rewarded with a partial reimbursement of their race entry fees.

Such encouragement isn’t reserved for marathon prep only. Children’s operates a 24-hour, on-site gym located at its main campus and managed by the YMCA and offers daily group fitness and educational opportunities that are free to all employees.

DuBro says the benefits are unquestionable in terms of both morale and money.

“This provides an opportunity to live a healthier lifestyle,” she says. “You see people coming to work and being happier.”

She says physical activity is very closely linked with decreased absences from work. According to Forbes, workplace illness resulted in a $576 billion loss in 2012 alone. Keeping people well and at work makes solid financial sense, as does keeping them happy while they’re there.

“A healthier lifestyle also helps people cope with stress, which is important in a hospital setting,” she says. “We want to help them develop that resilience to stress.”

Doing so helps employees feel content, so employee retention rises, she says.

Huntington Bank incorporated the Pelotonia bike ride into its wellness program that launched three years ago, says Steve Steinour, chairman, president and CEO of the Columbus-based company. Participating in the fundraiser provides a great opportunity to support the community and boost morale, he said.

“We have a series of activities that we provide to our colleagues to assist them in managing their health. Pelotonia training rides are key to helping many of us get in or stay in shape,” he says. “Those rides as well as our fundraising events have resulted in important team building with many of us getting to know one another on a more personal level.”

It’s not just the health professionals who are excited about the idea of a culture of fitness. Top executives also are promoting it. Glenn Marina, CEO of Boehringer Ingelheim-Roxane, ran his first marathon in October and is already planning his second. Marina is in good company—more than half of the 28 Columbus Marathon participants from Roxane were first-timers. Those who have been through it say participation in such events can foster connections between people.

“During my first runs, I experienced first-hand fantastic teamwork between the seasoned runners and beginners,” Marina says. “I was out of shape at the time and inspired by the camaraderie.” Through a program called Get Moving Roxane, coworkers trained together and saw amazing results.

“These are teammates who could barely finish walking that first training mile, and have now finished their first half marathon,” he says.

Mike Williams organizes the Get Moving Roxane program, which encourages wellness year-round.

To help runners prepare, he helped organize weekly runs, including long distance days at Homestead Park in Hilliard. The group also worked with Columbus Running Company to provide additional group runs. Informational and educational sessions took place during the workday, including a visit from Darris Blackford, race director for the Columbus Marathon. Participants attended a lunch-and-learn session on nutrition and a mandatory session on running gear, particularly proper fit of running shoes. “Our initiative would not be successful if runners were hurt because they were not well educated about running basics,” Williams says.

Education helps inspire people who may not think of themselves as athletes, says Richard Bird, information risk director for communications and consumer banking at JP Morgan Chase. On his own, Bird enjoys Crossfit and power lifting and also participates in a few high-test group events including Tough Mudder and Spartan Race. As excited as athletes can become about their endeavors, Bird says executives must realize it’s not their job to change people’s lifestyles. However, it’s possible to inspire behavior changes.

“A lot of senior execs are leading by example,” he says. “If I want healthy employees, setting an example yields immediate benefits.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Bird has seen a marked reduction in sick days and an improvement of many challenging health problems among the members of his own team and throughout the company. In terms of camaraderie: “There has been a huge positive impact.”

Nationwide is another organization that has put health and wellness at the top of its priorities list. Many offices feature gyms, and both employees and their families can use the tools within the My Health program, which helps participants track and achieve their wellness goals. Kathleen Herath, associate vice president of health and productivity for Nationwide says the company has seen the benefits of encouraging wellness from the top down, both in the company and in the community.

“We have seen exciting results from these group activities that incorporate wellness, build teamwork and yield positive results all the way around,” she says. Locally, Nationwide associates have teamed up to participate in the Columbus Marathon, Pelotonia and the Komen Race for the Cure.

People banding together in this way improves the overall community, but also impacts the balance sheet. At a time when health insurance costs are skyrocketing, employers are looking to cut costs wherever possible.

“Our data has consistently shown that as people reduce their health risks they decrease their health care costs,” Herath says. “People who exercise on a regular basis have decreased risks and proven improvements in productivity. For employers who aren’t quite sure how to start, there are experts out there who are happy to help. Fleet Feet Sports specializes in running, and operates a program called Marathoners in Training.

BOOSTING MORALE

Individuals can accomplish great things, but when it comes to corporations, a team mentality can be a great advantage, says Jeff Henderson, general manager of retail, training and racing.

“Any time you get involved in a healthy, active pursuit, you’ll see a benefit to your company,” he says. “Countless studies show the link between an active life and higher productivity. Active people typically have a higher level of energy, and the type of dedication it take to train spills over into the workplace.”

Chase’s Bird says event organizers are making it easier for executives to bring fitness to the workplace. “We’re finding so many team opportunities that lend themselves really well to corporate involvement at the staff level,” he says. “Those kinds of things haven’t always existed.” He says the opportunity to compete alongside employees at all levels builds corporate morale.

“You’ve got staff members from up and down the seniority scale interacting together,” Bird says. “That experience makes you a better team in the office, as well. You have a common understanding and a common team attitude through an experience that isn’t tied to your work persona.”

Kristin Campbell is a freelance writer.