Woman trying to close the buttons of her jeans.

The big challenge of office-based fitness initiatives is to involve those who need it most. Photo: Manuel-F-O

Fruit bowl in the kitchen, bike racks in the basement, corporate discount at the local gym … are Aussie businesses doing enough to help their staff slim down and shape up?

Or do corporate wellness initiatives only appeal to the already trim and taut and alienate the tubbier types who need them most?

The fitness or fatness of workers varies significantly by industry and occupation. 

They can do, says Dr Nhlanhla Mpofu, the medical director for occupational health at International SOS, a national consultancy that provides healthcare services to firms in the resources, manufacturing and corporate sectors.

Budget Direct's fitness challengers

Work it off: Staff at insurance company Budget Direct recently completed a 12-week fitness challenge.

While fitness-conscious staff are often happy to take part in company-sponsored sports and nibble a free apple, overcoming the resistance of hardcore sedentary types and fatty-food fans is more of a challenge.

“The best approach is to try to foster a group mentality,” Dr Mpofu says.

“Workforces doing things together – many people are more receptive to this than individual efforts.”

The all-in-it-together approach has worked a treat at insurance company Budget Direct, whose employees recently completed a 12-week, post-festive season health and fitness challenge.

General manager for assessing and supply Russ Waller mustered the troops for his division, roping in 54 staff from the call centre, vehicle assessment, administration and managerial ranks.

Staff were asked to nominate activity goals for the period and the company kept a tally of the collective kilometres walked, run, cycled and swum.

Allowing workers to set their own bar helped boost the participation rate, Waller believes.

“We wanted it to be open to all, not just the athletes in the company,” he says.

“It's important that everyone can take part. Make it inclusive in nature … let them choose any activity and contribute, albeit at a small level. Don't make people feel awkward. It's about encouraging the participation, not forcing it on anyone.”

Participants ranged from serious cyclists, who pedalled hundreds of kilometres, to a ladies' walking group, which convened for a stroll three mornings a week.

At the end of the 12 weeks, the group had clocked more than 15,000 kilometres and participants were invited to celebrate by entering a corporate triathlon together, with entry fees subsidised by the firm.

Some of the 20 who took up the offer were fitness event virgins, Waller says: “People took part who could hardly run 100 metres [before the challenge].”

The fitness or fatness of workers varies significantly by industry and occupation.

An American study of obesity prevalence by occupation released earlier this year by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention showed employees from the transport, security, cleaning and construction industries weighed in heaviest.

Workers with higher socio-economic statuses typically exhibited healthier behaviours, with teachers, doctors and lawyers topping the tree for trimness.

It's a similar story here in Australia. Two thirds or more of workers from the mining, utilities and transport sectors had Body Mass Indexes in the overweight to obsese range, according to Department of Health research from 2008.

Keeping the momentum of wellness programs going is vital if organisations want to see a significant improvement in the health and fitness of their workers, corporate wellness consultant Katrina Walton says.

Companies often get a quick win from an isolated initiative – a weight-loss program or pedometer challenge – and fail to follow it up, which means changes to habits are not sustained, she says.

“Challenges are great but the benefits tend to be short lived if they're not integrated into a broader, long-term program.”

It's advice the Redland City Council has taken to heart, after deciding to take its aging and bulging workforce of 1000 in hand three years ago. With the help of a $50,000 grant from the Queensland government, the council built a rudimentary outdoor gym and began offering weekly exercise classes for outdoor workers.

While a few hide from the process because they feel "too fat”, most have embraced the opportunity to shape up with workmates, Redland City Council's workplace health, safety and wellbeing service manager Peter Gould says.

Notable success stories have included one subsequent Biggest Loser contestant and the program has also succeeding in “scooping up some inside people along the way”, he says.

“You've got to have a long-term agenda and just keep chipping away.”