Re-examining inactivity in the workforce

Sport shoes on grey background

Gyms are working to support the long-term fitness goals of staff and to help employers improve health and activity levels, says James Shillaker, director of GymFlex

Those who believe that inactivity causes obesity might be in for a shock: a long-term study by Exeter University, EarlyBird diabetes study, finalised in 2013, suggests it is actually the other way around. Consuming a fatty, sugary diet in the early years causes obesity, which in turn makes people inactive. The World Health Organization (WHO) regards childhood obesity as one of the most serious global public health challenges for the 21st century.

By the time these kids become prospective employees they are often already obese, inactive and at much higher risk of illness and disease. The worrying part is that there is no end in sight to this trend.

Employers see benefits of active workforce
The UK is generations away from having a workforce that is physically active and enjoying the related health benefits. The good news is that a lot of UK employers have already started to embrace the need for a more active workforce and benefits like gym memberships are widespread. But are gyms the answer?

There is little doubt that the gym is the best place to get an overall, all-body workout. It’s packed with state-of-the-art equipment, qualified fitness professionals, approved exercise classes and extra nutritional and lifestyle advice. However, gyms have a lot to learn about how they work alongside clients. Employees having a gym membership is one thing, using it effectively to fulfil their health objectives… well, that’s another story. How is it that established gyms, in good locations, selling 12-month memberships are not full or have a waiting list? There is a feeling that gyms are too good at selling the fitness concept but not as effective at helping employees fulfil their long-term fitness objectives. The fact there appears to be as many people joining as there are leaving every month, for a sustained period of years, might help support this theory as to why gyms are not full up.

NHS guidelines recommend 30 minutes of exercise, three times a week. Although there are no confirmed statistics, it appears only a small percentage of a gym’s paying members do this. Even more worrying is that there is a significant percentage of paying members that have not visited the gym at all in a calendar year. GymFlex recently started a programme that maps the effectiveness of its memberships, getting real time data from its clubs as well as the employees who use them.

Fifteen years ago very few people cared about the usage data being collected. Now, with salary sacrifice options, in-house gyms and employers subsidising or funding gyms, the value of measuring the effectiveness of an employer’s wellbeing efforts and seeing a return on that investment is being recognised.

Appeal to employees
Another area gyms are looking to improve is their attractiveness to sedentary employees. The journey an employee takes from being completely inactive to working out every week, is defined by a series of emotional triggers that differ for every person. It is clear that messages like ‘new year, new you!’ and ‘get beach-body ready!’ are of limited effectiveness now. A lot of gym marketing is also not suitable for a human resources- or employee benefits-led campaign because it does not take into account the staff brand or corporate image of clients.

A study by research analysts Mintel, Health and fitness clubs UK, July 2015, discovered nearly 80% of adults have a fitness goal but only 12% were members of a gym. I think this highlights the need for gym providers to diversify their messages and create new ways of connecting to the emotional and physical health triggers of employees, rather than just pushing for them to join the gym from the outset