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Fitness reshapes the bottom line

By Nick Easen for CNN

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(CNN) -- Workplace health is not a new concept, but the way employers assess its value is shifting.

Businesses are waking up to the fact that reshaping the fitness of their staff could also shave pounds off their bottom line.

In the light of soaring medical bills, more corporations are swapping their reactive health insurance policies for proactive programs that promote fitness and health to staff.

"If you've got a healthy and productive workforce you should have a healthy and productive company," Dr. Damien Marmion from BUPA Health Insurance told CNN.

"When you look after the fitness of employees with you for a long time, especially senior executives, you will also prevent them from having major diseases over the long term."

Health troubles arising from obesity alone are estimated to cost U.S. companies $117 billion a year, according to a report by former Surgeon General, David Satcher.

And in the United Kingdom the National Audit Office reported that 18 million sick-days were lost in 2001 due to health problems associated with being overweight -- the equivalent of 40,000 working years.

"Studies show that if you have higher fitness levels you have better attention spans, you sleep better and you are better able to cope with stress in the work place," Marmion added.

A few corporations have already reported a positive impact from proactive corporate wellness strategies.

A report in the American Journal of Health Promotion found healthcare costs are reduced by an average $3.48 for every $1 spent on health promotion in the office.

Companies such as Dupont, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, General Mills and Pfizer all report that they have benefited from investing in preventative health programs.

Yet the majority of corporate health budgets are still devoted to treating the effects of our inactive office-bound lifestyles and not the cause of the problem.

"Quite a few companies don't get involved because they feel like its part of the private life of the employee," says Kent Richards, of UK health club operator, Fitness First.

"This aspect needs to be overcome because your private life does affect your work environment."

Governments have gone some way to promoting workplace health with education pamphlets, videos -- but with limited effect.

This year the U.S. Workplace Health Improvement Program could soon be made into law, resulting in greater tax deductions for health club memberships.

Legislators hope such a law will help reduce burgeoning medical bills and health-care premiums by promoting more active lifestyles and help reduce the incidence of problems later in life.

Arguments for similar legislation are also being made in the UK.

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