Employers who are continuing to incentivize their employees to join health clubs are looking more and more toward assessments and testing to ensure their investments are contributing to a healthier workforce.
In anticipation of the Affordable Care Act—which goes into full effect next year—employers are already clamping down on health care costs. And as such, fitness facilities that partner with corporations must provide better testing and assessments to demonstrate to business owners the return on their investment.
According to a study released earlier this year by the Principal Financial Well-Being Index, 59 percent of participants in employee-sponsored wellness programs say they have more energy to be productive at work. Club Industry reported in May 2012 on the numerous studies showing that, over a three-year period, costs associated with employee absenteeism are reduced by $2 to $3 for every $1 spent on workplace fitness and wellness programs. Among the main areas of concern: lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and weight loss.
Among the basics health clubs must provide its corporate participants are fitness assessments and reporting. Data may range from how often an employee visits the fitness center to things as detailed as measuring the impact a wellness program has on employee productivity and absenteeism.
The basic evaluation—usually taken before and after beginning a workout regimen—might include weight, body mass index, circumference, heart rate, blood pressure, aerobic fitness, muscular strength, flexibility and body composition. (All of these demonstrate the health improvements associated with lower health care costs.)
Further comparing each participant against a total employee population is key for employers interested in their program’s ROI, says Megan Mansfield, vice president of business development at Corporate Fitness Works, St. Petersburg, FL.
“Physical inactivity is a primary risk factor for some of our nation’s most chronic and costly health conditions,” Mansfield says. “By showing a change in habits from inactive to regularly active, we identify that we’ve eliminated a risk factor.”
Paul Diedrich, director of physical activity for Plus One Health Management, New York, says his company also values getting as much information as possible, not only for the client but also to empower and educate the worker.
“We collect that data and show [employees] where they’re at,” he says. “It allows our fitness-center members…to take action where needed.”
Many employers that work with Corporate Fitness Works offer onsite health clinics, Mansfield says, with which clinical measures can be integrated into pre- and post-program assessments. Examples include laboratory analyses from a blood-lipid profile or a chemistries panel that demonstrates how a customized program can target specific health conditions such as metabolic syndrome, hyperlipidemia and diabetes.
Diedrich says just because deeper analysis is possible does not mean it is a necessary investment for a company. That is why Plus One uses a needs analysis—a 15- to 20-question worksheet the employee fills out ahead of an assessment—“to make sure everything we’re doing has an explanation behind it,” he says. The worksheet is comprised of questions recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Academy of Sports Medicine. It is updated to include common issues of the day, such as lower-back pain due to sedentary work environments.
Movement and muscle imbalances also appear in the newest versions of the worksheet, Diedrich says.
“We choose about five tests for people after the questionnaire,” he adds. “It’s more individualized that way.”
The Costs and Equipment
Of course, any club owner who considers offering a corporate fitness program will wonder about the costs involved. Ann Wyatt, regional vice president of account management at HealthFitness, Minneapolis, says expenses will depend on the size of the total population and the assessments offered.
“You can run a program for virtually any cost that would fit your budget, but to get the most meaningful results and robust data that are meaningful and actionable, you will need to make an investment,” she says. “But it’s truly an investment in the health of the individuals you want to impact.”
The necessary equipment is fairly common and straightforward. A typical setup might include a medical scale, a body-fat caliber, a blood pressure cuff, a tape measure, and a metronome and step. Fitness centers also need member-management software with check-in features to track how often a member is working out and also to gauge how far or close a population is from meeting health goals laid out in the initial assessments. Some clubs may want or need to offer more advanced tracking methods, Mansfield says.
“More intricate systems that track types of activity performed, with exercise duration and intensity logging, can be even more effective,” she says.
To earn and keep the trust of corporate clients and their employees, it’s crucial for health clubs to train its staff on compliance with HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and how to run aggregate numbers with this sensitive health information. Debra Siena, president of Midtown Health, Chicago, adds that if the club is storing data about employees in-house, firewalls and passwords must be strong and secure.
Wyatt adds it is important to help individuals understand why including their numbers in reports to their employer serves the greater good.
“You can never communicate enough about your efforts to keep personal information private and secure,” Wyatt says. “The first step is making sure that employees understand how offering their data to a larger, aggregate—and not personally identified—data set fits into the bigger picture and benefits them by enhancing the overall program.”
Corporate Fitness Works hires professionals with, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in exercise science, kinesiology or other health-related field who have gone through assessment training. Access to fitness professionals has topped the lists of fitness trends in commercial facilities for the past few years, Mansfield says.
“People want to know that the individuals they are working with know what they’re doing,” she says. “This is true both for the participant and for employers hiring a management firm to run their onsite fitness program.”
Siena says that before a club takes the plunge into corporate fitness, it needs to evaluate its motives and resources. It is not about a sales promotion or offering lower monthly dues, she adds.
“It’s about embracing the company’s employees and helping them improve their well-being,” Siena says. “If the health club operator has that commitment and the resources, they can form long-term partnerships beneficial to both them and the corporation. It’s very different than just discounting a membership.”
Sidebar: Health Club Industry Behind the Curve on Data, Software Maker Says
Microfit, Fresno, CA, makes testing software that health clubs use to provide employee data to corporate clients. Its products, HealthWizard and HealthWizard Lite, can demonstrate for employers whether its workers are in fact getting healthier and, by extension, becoming more productive, reliable employees.
Rob Rideout, Microfit’s co-founder and vice president of sales, says he hopes the Affordable Care Act will increase pressure on individuals to take personal responsibility for their health, but in the meantime, club owners have a lot of catching up to do.
The biggest mistake companies make, according to Rideout, is not having detailed, science-based data that show if the programs they offer are working.
“The health club industry, by and large, is way behind in this area,” Rideout says. “There’s a big gap between supporting the use of data and what the clubs are providing.”
Too many corporations, Rideout says, are investing in equipment as “window dressing” and promoting an employee perk instead of a concerted strategy to accumulate data. Further, many club owners will not hire qualified people to do assessments and then explain the results.
“They have to care about more,” he says, “than being in the equipment rental business.”