As an Army platoon leader during the Vietnam War, James McDonough
learned firsthand the importance of having every man under his
command in peak physical condition.
Now, the former champion boxer and decorated combat veteran is
under fire of a different kind - for his groundbreaking attempt to
make staff fitness a high priority for Florida's prison department.
It's what he sees as a key stage of the department's transformation
after years of corruption and underperformance.
As the state's new secretary of Corrections, Mr. McDonough has
proposed mandatory fitness levels for 19,000 of his employees - some
of whom have desk jobs. It's meeting resistance from a union
representing prison and probation officers and making experts wonder
whether requiring workers to become physically fit, or risk losing
their jobs, is the best way to tackle the country's growing obesity
"Anytime you compel people to do something, they're not going to
put much effort into it," says Roy Shephard, a specialist in
exercise science at the University of Toronto who has studied
fitness programs in the workplace for more than four decades.
"You're more likely to have success by offering incentives and
encouragement [for employees to lose weight]."
Many employers thinking fitness
On-the-job fitness has become a hot topic in recent years as
employers count the cost of a too-hefty workforce. US industry loses
$13 billion and 39.3 million workdays every year through obesity-
related lost productivity, absenteeism, higher health-insurance
premiums, and medical expenses, the Department of Health and Human
With an estimated 65 percent of American adults overweight,
according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and
most spending half of their waking hours in the workplace, more
employers are realizing they have a role to play in turning the
Many private companies, including Motorola, Pfizer, Union
Pacific, and General Motors, have made substantial investments in
employee health, fitness, and well-being programs, with rewards
ranging from iPods to cash handouts for workers who shape up and
IBM, for example, has paid out more than $130 million in
"wellness incentives" to the 65,000 employees (about half the
company's US workforce) who are enrolled in its program. Bonuses of
up to $300 per year are paid to workers who give up smoking and
exercise at least three times a week.
As Dr. Shephard points out, the benefits to those companies far
outweigh the expenditure. "They're reducing their health costs and
making productivity gains through a happier, healthier workforce,"
he says. The National Business Group on Health has calculated that
benefit to a $3 return on every dollar spent on so-called preventive
Obesity and related health issues are no less a problem in the
public sector, where money is tighter and programs are less
prevalent. Even so, a number of state and local authorities have
established voluntary fitness plans in an effort to drive down
expenditures on health costs.
Among the most notable are Why Weight Kentucky?, a weight-loss
program for 235,000 state employees and their dependents, and last
year's decision by Travis County, Texas, to offer free bariatric
surgery to morbidly obese workers - a decision that has been since