Active Voice: Exercise is Medicine® in the Workplace Opportunities for Effective Interventions
By Delia Roberts, Ph.D., FACSM
Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.
Delia Roberts, Ph.D., FACSM, is a Professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Selkirk College in Castlegar, British Columbia, and president of FitSafe Solutions, Inc. Her research is focused on sport science based nutrition and physical activity intervention programs for worksite health and injury prevention.
Integrated workplace health and safety is an emerging field which provides unique opportunities to promote healthy living in target populations. More than 150 million Americans go to work every day, and, since attendance is a mandatory condition of employment, the audience is guaranteed. There are few other venues that present such excellent opportunities for healthy lifestyle training.
Nico Pronk and HealthPartners Research Foundation have demonstrated repeatedly that the costs associated with implementing a workplace health promotion program are easily recovered through reduced medical expenditures, decreased absenteeism, higher productivity and lowered health risks for participants. This provides for another unique and positive aspect of research in integrated workplace health and safety Ė it pays for itself. Furthermore, the workers carry the information home and share it with their families and friends, increasing the impact of the program well beyond the worksite doors. For more information on the cost effectiveness and other benefits of these programs, see ACSMís Worksite Health Handbook.
My own approach has been modelled after my background in high-performance sport. After all, if an athlete can be trained to compete at a very high physical and mental level, why canít a worker be prepared to withstand the stresses associated with their daily tasks? It was on this basis that I conducted my first worksite study with silviculture workers. These young men and women are remunerated extremely well on a per-piece basis, but their season is short and the work very demanding. The injury rate was accepted at 22 percent. Ten years later, for the first time in the history of Western Timberlands, we had a season with zero recordable incidents, and the culture of the group has changed to include base fitness, stretching, icing and massage, adequate hydration, and a diet high in complex carbohydrate and low-fat protein.
Each new program begins with an investigative phase, where workers are tested to evaluate the physical and mental stresses that they routinely experience in the workplace. Currently, truck drivers are responding extremely well to a new program of dietary changes and increased physical activity because it makes them better drivers. When eating a diet that kept blood sugar stabilized, drivers performed 15 percent better at complex, visual-based reaction time tests than when they ate their own food. By showing drivers that choosing an apple over a donut enhanced reaction time speed and accuracy enough that the truck could be brought to a stop 20 feet sooner, I was able to convince them that making the effort to change their lifestyle habits was worthwhile.
Interestingly, in a study that I completed several years ago, physicians were also motivated to improve their diets because it would enhance their ability to deliver good medicine. In both truck drivers and physicians, it was the desire to perform their jobs well that was more important to the individual than considerations regarding their own health.
In 2009, the International Association of Worksite Health Promotion was established as an affiliate association of ACSM. In addition, the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan has identified the workplace as one of eight key sectors for the promotion of physical activity. Integrated workplace health and safety is indeed an exciting new opportunity to practice Exercise is Medicine.