Advancing health through science, education and medicine

Corporate Wellness

Companies have sponsored sports teams and even provided sports fields for their employees throughout much of the twentieth century. Such initiatives were viewed mainly as a method of building a team spirit and increasing employee morale. However, the proportion of employees who became actively involved in company sports teams was relatively small. Brief callisthenic breaks for all employees were introduced at some European worksites as early as the 1960s, and it was claimed that such programs enhanced both physical performance and mental well-being. In the mid-1970s, the Canadian government launched a similar plan, providing taped music and written instructions to volunteer exercise leaders in many large office buildings. Unfortunately, the concept that an entire working group could cease operations for seven-to-eight minutes of callisthenic exercises twice each work day did not fit well with many modern industrial and business operations.

Nevertheless, the interest of the U.S. and Canadian governments in the promotion of health-related fitness developed rapidly during the 1970s. Government agencies still perceived the worksite as a favorable location for program delivery. Suggested advantages relative to community-based fitness programming included a defined population of manageable size, established channels of administration and communication, a strong potential for the recruitment of volunteer assistant exercise leaders and peer support from others who were beginning fitness programs for the first time. Above all, no travel time was needed in order to attend a worksite fitness program, so that the usual excuse of the sedentary person (a lack of time) was overcome. On the other hand, worksite programs had the disadvantage that they generally did not allow involvement of family units, regular attendance before or after work was sometimes compromised by commuting schedules, and such initiatives failed to cater to the growing segment of the population who worked from a home office. The introduction of a worksite fitness program was seen by some as an important first step in the development of a healthy overall corporate environment, ranging from a wise choice of canteen foods to a smoke-free worksite, and the emphasis of worksite programs has broadened progressively to include many forms of health counseling.

Demonstration worksite fitness programs in Canada and the U.S. suggested that they offered a number of important advantages to the sponsoring corporation. Program participants usually claimed to feel better, with a sense of increased personal productivity. Objective comparisons with similar companies or worksites where programs had not yet been introduced suggested that companies with a worksite exercise facility could 1) recruit employees with a favorable attitude toward both work and health, 2) reduce the rate of employee turnover among program participants, 3) experience a small increase of productivity and a small reduction in employee absenteeism, and 4) show a trend to reduced health costs. It was further claimed that regular participants enhanced their physical fitness, with a reduction in cardiac risk factors, thus reducing their risk of health problems as they became older. However, many of the elements involved in cost/benefit analyses were subjective in nature, and often assessments of response were made by program directors whose continued employment depended upon the reporting of favorable outcomes. Moreover, observations were commonly made over relatively short periods (3 to 12 months), and methods of statistical evaluation were often weak. The long-term influence of worksite fitness programs thus remains unclear.

Corporations were commonly introducing worksite fitness programs because of the favorable personal experience of a senior executive or a desire to offer an attractive benefit to employees, rather than as a means of improving corporate profitability. In a financial climate of globalization, shrinking profit margins and overseas competitors with very low labor costs, the return on investment (ROI) in fitness programs is facing increasingly critical scrutiny, with management questioning whether the postulated financial benefits cover the costs of providing and operating an employee facility. Few studies have compared options or explored the optimal investment in facilities. Available information suggests that cost-effectiveness is greatest for a limited physical facility that offers enthusiastic leadership. A large proportion of the labor force is employed by small companies where it is difficult to envisage the development of a large permanent facility; possibly, space can be shared with other neighboring corporations, and if this is not feasible, much valuable activity can be gained by simply installing showers and cycle storage space, and encouraging employees to walk or cycle to work.

The big challenge with structure initiatives is to sustain the interest and enthusiasm of employees over the long term. When a formal worksite fitness program is first launched, as many as a third of eligible employees are likely to join, but up to half of these become non-compliant within a few months, and the long-term compliance (10 to 12 years) is very low. Moreover, a substantial proportion of continuing members have been active elsewhere prior to introduction of the worksite initiative. Given that it is difficult to overlook the journey to and from work, and the pressing need for green forms of transportation, future worksite programs should probably focus largely upon encouraging employees to engage in active forms of commuting.

About the Author

Written for the American College of Sports Medicine by  Roy J. Shephard.Suggested Citation: Shepard RJ. Corporate Wellness. Indianapolis, IN: American College of Sports Medicine; 2016.ACSM Sports Medicine Basics are official statements by the American College of Sports Medicine concerning topics of interest to the public at large. ACSM grants permission to reproduce this fact sheet if it is reproduced in its entirety without alteration. The text may be reproduced in another publication if it is used in its entirety without alteration and the following statement is added: Reprinted with permission of the American College of Sports Medicine. Copyright ©2016 American College of Sports Medicine. Visit ACSM online at

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