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The Last Word: A Marathon Lesson

Two decades after wellness programs debuted as a part of employers’ health insurance packages, wellness remains an individual choice rather than a workplace imperative.

November 8, 2013
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Marathon

In late 2012, after committing to my first marathon, I saw an ad on my commuter train.

It was touting a 5-kilometer race to raise awareness for a worthy cause. Being in a running state of mind at that particular moment and seeking any shred of motivation to convince myself that, yes, propelling my body 26.2 miles in one morning is indeed a good idea, the language has stuck with me like gum to the bottom of my Nikes: “I run … because I can.”

I’ve since discovered that the phrase is a common refrain in the running community. But as the plaintive declaration trotted alongside me through several months of training and ultimately motivated a pair of achy legs past the finish line of the Chicago Marathon in mid-October, I also have come to realize that this mantra translates well beyond a road race.Rick Bell and Chatigny Imburgia

What does the phrase mean? I take it mostly as a reminder not to take the ability to run — mobility itself — for granted. And I think it also can be a call to all of us as employers to appreciate our ability to make a difference in the health of our employees.

Two decades after wellness programs debuted as a part of employers’ health insurance packages, wellness remains an individual choice rather than a workplace imperative. That’s a good thing. You don’t want to use sunscreen when you go to the beach on Saturday? Dumb choice, but I’m not gonna be there with a tube of Banana Boat SPF 50 to slather you up. You want to run a marathon? Good choice, but don’t shred your Achilles tendon by stepping in a pothole. It’s your call, and the choices, good or bad, are laced with consequences both pro and con.

Still, there’s something positive about a collective employer-employee relationship that takes healthy behaviors to a higher level. “We choose to be well … because we can.”
I took on my personal wellness, but as I look back, a nudge from previous employers would have been appreciated. Four years ago I could barely walk around my block because of serious back pain. I was commuting 160 miles round trip for work every day. The ripple effects of the Great Recession were becoming more like tidal waves, and my nutrition was, well, lacking. In short, I was a physical and emotional mess.

When you’re at that point — with the stresses of work and life in general — you tell yourself, “If only I could make it around the block, I would start exercising.”

After several days of hobbling around like a 90-year-old, I made it around the block. And then I made it around the block again. I got in the pool and began water workouts.

Slowly, the back pain eased, my emotional state righted itself and I discovered great joy in exercise. When I challenged myself to run a marathon late last year, it happened not because of some obsession to cross it off my bucket list but because I finally could. The placard on the train merely crystallized my commitment.

Perhaps this is a selfish way to look at it, but I wasn’t running for a charity or a friend with a debilitating illness. I did it for myself. I don’t ever want to take for granted that my legs allowed me to get to the starting line, much less finish the race.

‘Perhaps this is a selfish way to look at it, but I wasn’t running for a charity or a friend with a debilitating illness. I did it for myself.’

High blood pressure, gastrointestinal disease and chronic back pain are as prevalent in the workplace as manila folders full of reports. Yet there’s plenty of research showing that wellness plays a key role in productivity. Well-run wellness programs also are a way to take care of your people and simultaneously help organizations stand out as employers of choice.

So do something about the sedentary employees who sit for hours at their desks. The only time they move is when they take a bathroom break or hit the food court for a burger, fries and a soda.

Ask people why they sit at their desks for hours without moving. Maybe there’s a way to redistribute a portion of  the workload to get them on their feet.
Invite them for a lunchtime walk. Or do what more organizations are doing around wellness — supply healthy food choices and encourage walking programs that get people counting steps, cutting down on calories and comparing their progress with their colleagues.

We have the ability to encourage our employees both individually and collectively to run their own races to a healthier lifestyle. They have to make that choice, but we can also be there to coach and encourage them. And if they happen to run a marathon, when they return to work — their legs all stiff and tired — you can congratulate them for a very cool accomplishment.

It will mean a lot. It did to me when my colleagues and bosses stopped by to tell me way to go.

They did it because they could. And you can, too.

Rick Bell is Workforce's managing editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Bell on Twitter at @RickBell123.

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