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Fiscal Fitness: Fatten Bottom Lines by Trimming Workers' Waistlines

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There are 7,000 seats in the University of Miami's new basketball arena and David Touhey and Patrick L. McGrew are responsible for every last one of them.

Got a problem with your courtside seat? They'll dash over to you. Something going on in the rafters? They'll sprint up there, too.

Staying in shape isn't a luxury; it's a job requirement. Their solution: Squeeze the workout into the workday. Three times a week at noon, Touhey, 29, the arena's general manager, and McGrew, 36, the director of facilities, play a sweat-inducing round of racquetball.

"If it has been a stressful day you get to release some of that stress and reenergize yourself," Touhey says. "Keeps you in a better mood and you can find new ways to look at problems."

Faced with a fatter work force, a growing number of companies are finding new ways to bring fitness into the workplace. Fit employees boost the bottom line. Less stress. More energy. Fewer sick days. Lower health-care costs.

The Miami office of Eastman Kodak contracts with South Florida yoga instructor Arthur Ackerman to run a weekly Lunchtime Yoga class for its 70 employees. The cost is minimal: $10 per class, per person.

"It's commonly accepted that people who are energetic and relaxed and feel comfortable are going to do better work," says Kodak's Alan Witrock, vice president for the Latin American Region. "Does it save us dollars and cents? Of course it does. You can't measure it, but it's the cost of quality. People make fewer mistakes, they think through what they are doing better."

Indeed, the cost of obesity to business - for health care, sick leave and life and disability insurance - is estimated at $12.7 billion, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

As such, many companies are adding fitness programs. The Society for Human Resource Management's annual survey of 584 employee benefit managers found 31 percent subsidize or reimburse gym membership fees, up 35 percent from 1999 to 2003. An additional 22 percent have on-site fitness centers.

The focus on fitness yields fiscal results. Consider a 2001 report by Cutting Edge, a consulting firm specializing in wellness programs:

-Over a three-year period, DuPont credited its fitness program with saving $1.6 million, $1.5 million and $3 million in annual health care costs.

-Adolph Coors' wellness center saved the company $1.4 million over six years.

In South Florida, Seawood Builders, a Deerfield Beach construction company, gave its 22 employees discounts to area gyms and started a fitness contest with a $1,500 cash prize to the employee whose health improved the most.

"We've had incredible improvement," says Betty Masi, the company's chief operating and chief financial officer. "One woman got off her high blood pressure medication, one got off diabetes medication. These things detract from the ability to focus on work and the family. For them, it's a benefit and it's a secondary benefit for the company as a whole," Masi says.

Even the 80-hour-a-week set is finding time to squeeze in fitness.

Louise Brais, 38, a law partner at Holland & Knight, adjusts her calendar to make time for the twice-a-week, 90-minute yoga class the firm offers in an empty conference room in its Brickell, Fla., offices.

"I basically block it off on my calendar and schedule it as if it's a hearing or a conference with a client so it doesn't get moved off the calendar for something work-related," she says. "I try to hold myself to that time because it's my time."

Tony Baradat, 41, president of Anthony Baradat & Associates, a Miami-based advertising agency, eats lunch at his desk to make time for a mid-day jaunt to the gym.

"I had a boy about three years ago and I decided I wanted to be able to throw a football around the yard with him in a few years. (Lifting weights) gives me a lot of energy. This is so convenient there's no excuse not to do it."

But fitting fitness in during the workday requires self-discipline, and a creative mind-set, say devotees.

"Some days we play at lunch, sometimes in the morning or after work. People here do different things - some do yoga, Pilates," says Touhey, the University of Miami racquetball player. That determination pays dividends.

"It's a mental respite from a long challenging day," says racquetball partner McGrew, who puts in an eight- to 10-hour day that can grow to 18 hours when an event is at UM's Convocation Center.

"It's easy to make excuses why you can't do something, but it's the right thing to do," McGrew says. "You can easily get burned out because of the nature of the beat. I haven't had a sick day in 10 years."


(c) 2003, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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