Office peer pressure to get healthy

Juliet Rodman, left, and Aytaj Vily of Wellness Corporate Solutions get ahead of the pack during a four-mile round-trip hike in Maryland.
Jahi Chikwendiu | The Washington Post
Juliet Rodman, left, and Aytaj Vily of Wellness Corporate Solutions get ahead of the pack during a four-mile round-trip hike in Maryland.
Posted June 01, 2012, at 9:05 a.m.

When Matthew Benton started working at Wellness Corporate Solutions in 2008, he realized it wasn’t going to be anything like his previous job at a bank. For starters, there was the senior vice president, Juliet Rodman, who was always doing headstands in the office. “I would take pictures of her and send them to my parents,” he says.

Benton, now 32, still doesn’t practice inversions as the company’s director of information management. But his views on what an office can be like have turned upside-down. He’s gotten hooked on the daily 10-minute walks the 30 employees take around their Cabin John, Md., neighborhood, and he has improved his diet. “I’d never eaten hummus, edamame or sushi,” says Benton, who today enjoys all three.

And people doing headstands around the office? “It’s amazing what you adapt to,” Benton says.

Essentially, that’s the business pitch for Wellness Corporate Solutions, which is dedicated to introducing and normalizing healthy behavior in the workplace.

It’s easy to imagine that folks advising large national clients — including Marriott, Discovery Communications and Booz Allen — on how to boost the health of employees would have their own issues figured out. But President Fiona Gathright, who founded the company with Rodman in 2004, says rapid expansion has made it more of a challenge to practice what they preach. “It gets so busy that we don’t take time for our own wellness,” Gathright says.

So, over the past year, as its workforce tripled in size, the company introduced several programs to keep employees focused on fitness, nutrition and mental health. There are those regular group walks (and occasional longer ones along the nearby C&O Canal Towpath). There’s a community-sustained agriculture service that drops off boxes of produce each Friday. Sometimes, they shut off the lights, play relaxing sounds and let Rodman lead them in a quick meditation.

Don’t think the employees are just fooling around all of the time, however. “They often work so hard, they eat lunch at their desks,” Gathright says. Of course, they’re sitting at those desks on inflated stability balls that strengthen their core muscles. And they’re encouraged to dress in workout clothes, so they’re ready to get down on the floor at any minute for group exercise breaks.

No one’s required to do anything other than his or her job, but there’s no denying the office peer pressure to live better. Brian Garrett, who works in accounting, had grown accustomed to drinking three bottles of Coke a day. But he was getting such a hard time that the 25-year-old quit cold turkey a month ago. Rachel Cooper, a 23-year-old program assistant, credits her job with getting her running regularly (she’s part of the after-work run club) and switching from cinnamon swirl white bread to 17-grain.

It’s been a welcome change for Ari Klenicki, 29, who’s always made himself nutritious lunches. “At other offices, I was that guy. I remember having fruit and cottage cheese and people staring at me,” he says. When his meals get attention now, it’s because co-workers want to take photos for the office Pinterest board and copy his recipes. “We could really use an avocado vending machine,” jokes Ashley Woodhouse, 23, who says there are so many of the fruits in the office kitchen that they just share them now.

The environment is something 21-year-old Zach Lund, who started working there in October, is still getting used to. “Realistically, when you’re in an office with people getting into shape and eating right, you want to do it yourself,” he says. “I came just for a job. But I’ve gotten two for one — it’s a package deal.”

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Tabata: Sweat It Out in Four Minutes Flat

When deciding on an office exercise break, the employees at Wellness Corporate Solutions “wanted to do something hard in not a lot of time,” says Senior Vice President Juliet Rodman.

They settled on Tabata, an exercise protocol developed by a Japanese scientist that demands 20 seconds of activity, followed by 10 seconds of rest, for eight rounds. That adds up to four minutes packed with a ton of reps.

The day I visited, Rodman announced that the Tabata exercise would be push-ups. The strength-builder is part of the office’s test of a “soldier fit” incentive program that’ll eventually roll out to clients. “You can rest in downward-facing dog, and if you get tired, go to your knees,” Rodman instructed as everyone scrambled to find an empty space between the cubicles. Even for this crew, that’s a lot of push-ups, so there was some giggling and groaning, but everyone got through it.

Rodman says that’s only because they make sure they do Tabata at least three times a week. Sometimes it’s lunges, squats or plank (moving from front to side to other side), or they’ll call out a different move for each 20-second interval.

One reason you may not be able to pull this off at your office: Tabata training really works up a sweat. But you can fix that problem by lobbying to copy the Wellness Corporate Solutions dress code, which is gym wear. (Maybe instead of casual Friday?) Not only does it make it easier to participate in the Tabata breaks, but it also encourages staff members to exercise immediately after quitting time.

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