As the old saying goes, health is wealth. This phrase is mostly used in the context of the individual rather than the collective. However, I’d argue that this is just as relevant - perhaps even more so - for companies as it is for individuals.

Obesity in the UK is rising at an alarming rate. From 1993 to 2012 (the latest NHS data available), the percentage of men classified as obese rose from 13% to 24% and the percentage of women from 16% to 25%. Nearly two thirds of adult males are classified as overweight.

In the UK, absence due to sickness costs corporations £29bn per year according to PwC. The average employee in the UK takes eight sick days per year. These are large numbers and can be reduced substantially through relatively small changes to daily habits which companies can and should facilitate. These companies would literally be wealthier if their employees were healthier.

Too often, being a ‘good employer’ is understood to mean offering remedial assistance rather than offering preventative support. Most common issues can be prevented though: it is much better to avoid getting a blister by wearing well-fitted shoes than to treat a blister. As a culture, we need to learn to treat the problem, not the symptom.

Diet is important, but not everything

Diet is very important in health and we shouldn’t dismiss it. However, not all issues can be solved with improved diet. Exercise can help in ways that diet cannot.

Nutrition is also a very fast moving, emotional and aggressively debated subject. It is difficult for readers to sort wheat from chaff. It was not so long ago that fats were demonized and yet today the LCHF (Low Carb High Fat) movement is extremely strong. We love to find scapegoats for modern obesity and frequently I read how all of our problems are because of large corporate food and beverage companies setting the global diet agenda. Knowing what a ‘good’ diet looks like is extremely difficult and the truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  

Exercise, on the other hand, is of undisputed benefit. There might be debate about the best types of exercise, but the principle is straight forward: exercise makes you healthier. Exercise is also much easier for companies to influence than diet.

Exercise is great medicine 

The list of benefits of regular exercise is so long and undisputed that I can’t really do it justice in a short article. The NHS has a non-exhaustive list of benefits here.

Here are some of the more astounding statistics I have found in my research on the health benefits of regular exercise:

-          32% less likely to suffer from oesophageal cancer

-          40% less likely to suffer from Type II diabetes

-          Less prone to and reduced intensity of migraines

-          Reduces the chances of catching a cold by ‘nearly 50%’

-          Reduces chance of catching the flu by 10% 

You don’t have to be Chris Hoy or Mo Farah. To qualify for these health benefits, you need to exercise a modest 150 minutes per week. That is a meagre 22 minutes per day – hardly a big sacrifice for either a company or an individual.

Fit employees are more productive

Regular exercise also means employees are more likely to be more productive when at their desks. Exercise releases endorphins which make people happy, more energetic and increase brain function. Exercise literally makes you smarter. It is no accident that regular physical activity results in more productive employees.

Happier employees are also less likely to have low job satisfaction and therefore, by extension, those employers are more likely to see high staff retention ratios. Anyone who has employed a significant number of people knows how critical it is to retain good people. If you employ a team, encourage them to get out and get their sweat on.

It’s official: group exercise is the most fun 

The two biggest road blocks for creating an ‘exercise habit’ are time and motivation.

I’ve already mentioned time, but you really don’t need to allocate much to make a big difference. If you genuinely can’t find the time, you need assistance with time management.

Quite often people blame time, though, when it is really motivation that is the issue. Here, group exercise can really help. It is much more fun when doing something with people rather than pounding the pavement on your own. Research from Oxford University on elite rowers demonstrated this with improved pain thresholds in a group exercise context. Finding a great class, club or group to work out with can be game-changing in developing a solid exercise routine.

Employers and managers: lead from the front

If you employ a team of people and you’re concerned about maintaining good health, lead the effort from the front. Organisations take very strong cues from senior leadership and if you don’t value your health, you can’t expect your staff to do so either. Be visible doing it. Small signals matter to your team – being visible in a technical t-shirt, prioritising the time during the working day or being vocal about your weekend ride.

You’re not being selfish or bragging, you’re looking after your organisation. Lace up the Nikes and Just Do It.

Geoff Bamber
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Geoff is Chief Executive Office of Digme Fitness. He is a former hedge fund manager and keen amateur triathlete. He has completed 10 Ironman triathlon races, including the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.