Wed, 29 Nov 2000

Introducing good health and fitness at the office is cool

By Clare E. Urwin

SURABAYA (JP): Things have changed recently. Now, taking a gym bag to the office is cool. So is having a low fat snack or bag of apples in the desk drawer. Long lunches followed by sleepy afternoons are a thing of the past and enlightened companies are actively encouraging a health and fitness mood amongst their employees.

In today's competitive workplace, individuals have to look snappy and on the ball. Small businesses and huge corporations want to portray that same image. Studies show that workers feel good and are much more productive if they are fit. Quite simply, it is very cost effective for any company to improve the health of their staff.

As far as the employees are concerned, the perfect formula for a work situation would be if their organization could provide a physical fitness outlet (for instance a company gym), health education facilities, a nutritionally-aware cafeteria and comfortable work spaces.

This may be relatively easy for rich enterprises like HSBC or Microsoft but "dream on", most bosses of smaller companies would say. And of course, the weekly struggle for regular pay packets has to take priority over turning part of the parking lot into a fancy workout center.

However, even if your business is never going to make Bill Gates worry, by helping your employees cope with the stresses and strains of everyday work life, huge benefits will result.

For a start, after only a few months of any comprehensive "well-being at work" program, reports indicate that absenteeism drops dramatically. Days off for sickness are reduced while enthusiasm and motivation for the task in hand rapidly improves.

Organized team events repeatedly show that workers who play games and sweat together can utilize that same team spirit in the workplace. The bottom line is, if they can win collectively for fun, they can also win collectively for the company.

It's obvious how important fitness is in today's aggressive job market. A health club membership is now ranked very highly amongst the perks offered to top managers, being a favorite lure for both the individual and the corporation.

Keeping middle-aged executives healthy, fit and young looking is good for personal morale of course, but it can also save the company money by preventing expensive heart attacks or strokes.

Nevertheless, personal responsibility must come into the formula too. In health terms, there are several things that the staff can do to improve their own daily work habits, regardless of the facilities or training provided by their employers.

Increased physical activity can be moulded into your daily work routine, even without a gym. For instance, try to park your car at the far end of the parking lot. And, if a space is reserved for you right next to the front door, still use one much further away. Your health is a bigger prize than any parking benefit.

Hand deliver messages rather than using the phone or e-mail. Also, take the stairs whenever possible, particularly if you are going four floors or less. Are you fortunate enough to work on the twentieth floor? Just keep walking up and only take the lift for the final few flights. By then you will probably deserve it!

If you don't already have one, why not lobby for a no-smoking ban in your office? Ammunition can come from recent research involving 10,000 Hong Kong police officers. More than half never smoked, but the study found that the longer they had been exposed to passive smoke, the more time they took off work.

Nonsmoking men subjected to others smoking at work for more than a year, were twice as likely to take time off than those in a smoke-free environment. They were also 30 percent more likely to have taken medication for respiratory symptoms.

Take a cool look at the ergonomics at your own work station as its another excellent place to consider good health. Ergonomics is all about making the job fit the person, rather than the person fitting the job. Its the science of designing the layout of workplaces and their equipment to improve employee well-being and efficiency.

In an office you don't wear overalls, big boots and a hard hat, so risks appear minimal, especially compared to working at a construction site or in a manufacturing plant. However, injuries among office workers are on the increase and Repetitive Strain Injury (RPI) is one of the fastest growing problems.

The main culprit is technology. It's totally changed the way we work. Now we live in an information age, where sending and receiving messages is as important as producing a product. Unfortunately, prolonged computer use and other desk bound tasks are very dangerous for musculoskeletal health.

When using computers, our bodies are often held in unnatural static positions for hours on end. This is not cool. We were designed for constant movement using a wide variety of muscles. Consequently, a rigid posture and over using isolated body parts such as fingers, hands and wrists can cause real harm.

Sensible ergonomics means that computer users should practice good posture and body mechanics while they work and take recommended exercise breaks. Simple changes such as adjusting a chair or raising a monitor can avoid tension and pain.

RSIs, that causes soreness, numbness, weakness and a restricted range of motion, appear "out of nowhere". In fact, the beginning stages often seem unrelated to work. A typical sufferer usually first becomes aware of the odd sensations in their hands and wrists at night.

These injuries can happen to any office worker, in any industry; and since virtually all computer users are at risk of RSIs, prevention is all important. The following are some do-it- yourself ergonomic tips for working at a computer station.

1. Sit with your shoulders relaxed, thighs parallel to the floor and feet flat.

2. Keep wrists straight and keyboard at about elbow height.

3. Place the computer monitor directly in front of you, 45 centimeters to 60 centimeters away, with the top just below eye level.

4. Place the mouse next to the keyboard and move your whole arm to move the mouse.

5. Take short breaks often, to stretch your body and rest your eyes.

Good health and fitness in the office is an advantage at all levels. Because the staff are well and happy, they are more efficient. The company makes money with this increased productivity and then continues to help employees improve or maintain their health. Isn't it great that everyone wins sometimes? Now that's really cool. Good luck.

The writer is a nutritionist and health advisor based in Surabaya. If you have any questions, please feel free to write or make comments through the writer's e-mail address: or