How some companies are making fitness part of the workday
Juliet Rodman (left) leads a workout at Wellness Corporate Solutions in Bethesda, where employees often exercise together in the middle of the day.
It was midafternoon on a weekday in March when an email went out to the staff at Wellness Corporate Solutions (WCS) in Bethesda: There would be an impromptu interval workout in the data department in 15 minutes. All employees were invited.
Brandon Fields, 30, director of operations for the health and wellness company, says he and a group of co-workers received the message in the middle of a planning meeting. They were all wearing workout-appropriate clothes—sweat-wicking shirts and pants that make it easy to move around comfortably—which WCS encourages employees to do for just this reason.
“There were maybe five of us in the conference room with our laptops open, and someone noticed the email,” Fields says. “We were all like, ‘Let’s go!’”
They walked down to the data department for eight minutes of planks, lunges, pushups, situps and other calisthenics with several other employees in a session led by Juliet Rodman, the co-founder of WCS and its chief wellness officer. Then they went back to their meeting.
“It really wakes everyone up, especially during those afternoon meetings when you get the 3 p.m. coffee crash,” says Fields, who tries to participate in the miniworkouts whenever his schedule allows it to supplement his marathon-training efforts. “I definitely feel like people were way more productive and focused when they came back.”
At WCS, where services include creating and managing wellness programs for workplaces across the country, there are pullup bars and resistance bands throughout the office, along with two communal treadmill desks that workers sign up to use in shifts. An employee leads 45-minute yoga classes outdoors during warm weather. All staffers receive fitness trackers to count their steps throughout the day—Rodman walks 6 miles a day with the help of her own treadmill desk. The company also sponsors circuit-training classes at Next Phase Group Ex Studio, which is a short walk away. The classes, typically held around 4 p.m. on Fridays, serve as an alternative to happy hour.
Emmaline Olson of Gaithersburg took a group class at Next Phase shortly after starting her job in the WCS customer care department in June 2015. “If it’s free, and it’s during work hours, and your boss is going, too, why not attend?” she says.
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WCS isn’t the only employer in the Bethesda area offering on-site fitness classes to its staff. Discovery Communications hosts weekly boot-camp, strength-training, kickboxing and yoga classes at its Silver Spring headquarters. Employees at Marriott International in Bethesda gather in the ground-floor gym at corporate headquarters for Zumba, yoga and interval-training sessions, and the company also has a full Pilates studio. Honest Tea in Bethesda hosts two weekly boot-camp classes, and managers encourage employees to hold “walking meetings” on the Capital Crescent Trail when the weather is nice. The office also has two communal standing desks for employees. Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s Bethesda campus has a fitness center that offers a full schedule of hourlong cycling, yoga and strength-training workouts throughout the day during the workweek.
Wellness Corporate Solutions offers free headstand lessons at work for anyone who wants to learn.
The opportunity to exercise is a benefit that workplaces are offering with increasing regularity. A 2015 report by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 70 percent of employers throughout the country offer a general wellness program, with benefits such as on-site exercise classes, company-provided fitness bands or activity trackers, and wellness challenges or competitions. (WCS holds monthly challenges in which employees pledge to walk a certain number of steps or do a certain number of planks or pushups per day.) According to a 2014 study by the RAND Corporation, a California-based nonprofit, every $1 put into wellness programs yields a return on investment of $1.50 in lowered insurance premiums and other health care costs. But the reasons companies offer such programs have shifted in recent years.
“Employers may have started offering wellness programs because of health care cost savings, but there’s so much more that happens when you have a robust program in place that offers benefits such as gym memberships and on-site fitness classes,” says Rodman, noting benefits such as improved morale and job satisfaction, and increased productivity.
Rodman, who lives in Cabin John, says wellness programs can also serve as recruiting tools, and that millennials in particular have come to expect features such as fitness classes and on-site gyms as part of their benefit packages.
When employees at Honest Tea requested a company-sponsored fitness class a couple of years ago, organizers had to get creative about where and how to hold one. Their Bethesda Avenue office is small, with about 25 employees on-site. “We first had to ask whether we had the space, which we really don’t,” says Courtney Richardson, an executive assistant who lives in Northwest Washington, D.C.
Richardson and a human resources representative found an instructor willing to teach within the space they felt would work best—the reception area with the chairs cleared out—and set up the class for 5:15 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday. They store free weights, yoga mats and other props in a supply closet.
The instructor leads the five or so regular participants through a series of weight-training and plyometric exercises in the reception area. They run sprints in the building or at a nearby park.
“When people ask what I like about working at Honest Tea, it’s one of the top things I list,” says Wendy Derbak, an associate brand manager who lives in Gaithersburg. “It goes a long way toward creating a sense of work-life balance and a feeling of community among the group that participates.”
Rodman, who used to be a professional personal trainer, offers free headstand lessons at WCS to anyone who cares to learn. She posts photos of staff members who have mastered the inversion on her “Wall of Wow,” all in the name of encouraging employees to get moving in new and unique ways.
“We’re a self-funded startup company,” she says. “But even without room to build a gym, you can make it easier and more fun for employees to move throughout the day.”
Keira Lewis, a senior manager at Marriott International, teaches a Zumba class for colleagues at the company's corporate headquarters in Bethesda.
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At 5:15 p.m. on a Monday in April, Keira Lewis is wrapping up a busy day as a senior manager in the tax department at Marriott International. After closing an Excel spreadsheet she’s spent the afternoon working on, she heads downstairs to change clothes and meet her Zumba class.
Lewis walks into StudioM Fitness Center, the on-site fitness center of Marriott’s corporate headquarters in Bethesda. When she arrives at her Zumba class, several participants are slouching against the walls, looking tired. She greets them and makes small talk, then cues up her opening song, “Don’t Wake Me Up” by Chris Brown.
“Don’t wake me up—but yeah, wake me up, because we’re about to work it out,” says Lewis, 44.
Lewis leads the class through a dance-aerobic routine to Latin, hip-hop and country music, letting loose a hearty “Whoop! Whoop!” every few minutes. By the middle of the hourlong class, everyone joins in her cheers.
“I encourage people to make noise,” says Lewis, who lives in Northwest Washington, D.C. “By the end of class, everyone’s demeanor has just changed, and I know how they feel. During class, you feel the stress of your workday just fall off of you.”
Lewis started using the fitness center when she joined Marriott in 2006—the company has had a gym at corporate headquarters since the building opened in the late 1970s—and she started teaching Zumba in 2012. She says working out midday provides an energy boost to fuel the afternoon, while 5 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. classes offer a different benefit: Staying at work to exercise and shower gives Bethesda-area traffic a chance to clear.
“Once you’re in the car, it’s hard to drag yourself to a workout class. God forbid if you have to go home to change your clothes first,” Lewis says. “Here, all you have to do is grab your bag and go downstairs.”
Marriott recently revamped its fitness center, expanding it to 3,500 square feet and adding all new equipment, upgraded locker rooms and showers. StudioM Fitness Center hosts three Zumba, two yoga and two high-intensity interval-training classes every week, with about 20 people participating in each, says Rebecca Spencer, Marriott’s director of global well-being. One instructor is on the fitness-center staff, while the other three are Marriott employees who teach fitness classes in their spare time, like Lewis.
It costs Marriott employees roughly $20 per month for a gym membership, which includes access to classes, Spencer says. By comparison, Equinox in Bethesda costs $153 per month, and Bethesda Sport & Health starts at $79 per month. “The idea of being able to have a balance and really being able to take care of your body has really been ingrained in our culture since the early days,” says Angela Wiggins of Silver Spring, senior director of corporate relations for Marriott. “Employees don’t feel restrictions about working out during lunch.”
Still, just because a company offers fitness-related perks doesn’t mean its employees will take advantage of them. At Marriott headquarters, about 550 of the company’s 3,000 employees belong to StudioM Fitness Center. Lewis says that when she first started using the Marriott gym, it was tough to tear herself away from work at lunchtime for step aerobics classes. “When you make it happen, your energy level goes up and you’re really ready for those meetings in the afternoon,” she says.
Brandon Fields also acknowledges that it’s easy to get into a rut and not want to stop what you’re doing to work out. “But when other people in your building or office are getting up to go to a class that’s sponsored by your employer, you think, ‘They have just as much work as I do. I’m sure I can take an hour to go work out with them,’ ” he says. “And once you do, no matter what else you have coming up in your day, you think, ‘OK, I can do this.’ ”
Amy Reinink is a frequent contributor to the magazine who also writes for Men’s Health and other publications.