Lead your employees to health, and they will follow your example beyond the workplace.

To stay healthy, human beings have to move. But in modern society, machines do much of the work and keep us entertained as well. “We now have a crisis of inactivity that kills more people than smoking,” Globe and Mail health reporter André Picard told the audience. “Besides the human cost, it is a drain on the economy,”

It was October 2012, and Picard was speaking at the Goodlife Fitness Health and Wellness Leadership Summit in Toronto. The event was established to promote health and fitness through strong leadership in the workplace.

In the past, humans used their energy just trying to survive, Picard said. Now, our jobs involve sitting for extended periods. Only 15% of adults and 7% of kids meet minimum activity levels. In fact, 85% of Canadian adults are stationary for over 23 hours a day. Indeed, for the first time in modern memory, the average person under 30 today will not live as long as their parents due to reduced activity levels and unhealthy diets. We spend $200 billion a year on healthcare in Canada. “There is a cure for many of these problems and it has no side effects. It is called activity.”

In the workplace, the right policies promote health and wellbeing for employees, who in turn bring more energy, creativity and productivity to the job and take the lesson home to their families. A key part of the formula is simple: “To be your best you have to enjoy your work and be engaged,” said Mike Taylor, life coach and master of ceremonies for the event. “People want to be where the fun is.”

This year, organizations that have shown continuous improvements in areas of fitness, activity, nutrition, education and employee behavioural changes were presented with the inaugural GoodLife Workplace Fitness, Health and Wellness Award.

Reaching your potential

“We want to give every Canadian the opportunity to live a healthy life–physically, emotionally and socially. If people are not fit, they cannot reach their potential,” said David Patchell-Evans (“Patch”), founder and CEO of GoodLife Fitness and an international advocate for health and fitness.

One study has shown that students in private schools get better marks largely because their week includes physical activity. “When young muscles grow, so do self-esteem and confidence, leading to wellness to that lasts a lifetime,” said Patchell-Evans.

Psychology is a key part of wellness. We are born without guilt, depression, and stress, said comedian and life coach Jessica Holmes, known for her role on CBC’s Royal Canadian Air Farce. “Spend less time down on yourself and dealing with toxic people and more time going for it. Leap and the net will appear.”

Her advice to executives: “Pay attention to what you’re good at and you’ll feel better across the board. Let employees shine at what they are good at and they will thrive.”

Converting obstacles into achievements

Yvonne Camus was a team member in the Discovery Channel’s Eco-Challenge, a 500 km competitive wilderness race on the island of Borneo, and television producer Mark Burnett’s first voyage into the world of reality television. In over 12 years the US Navy Seals have failed to finish this race, Camus told the delegates. But her biggest challenge came from blisters from a grain of sand. “It’s the little things that drive you crazy.”

Enthusiasm is a renewable resource and your team needs your enthusiasm and viewpoint, said Camus. Surround yourself with incredible people who will celebrate and protect you. We have to cheer those we care about and sometimes nudge them back on track. Excellence starts with the intention of improving and the relentless commitment of effort. “You will have a glorified life when you work hard at, and want, exactly what you have.”

Meeting the challenge head on

Frank Napolitano, the president and CEO of GlobalFit, plays a key role in the development of health and wellness programs for businesses. He believes that for fitness programs to work, employees need to disconnect from technology. “All humans are competitive and enjoy a degree of challenge. We also love the social interaction of being on a team.”

It’s all about changing behaviour. Walking for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, reduces rates of heart disease, recurrence of breast cancer, diabetes and kidney disease.

Healthy and fit of employees reduce health care costs while increasing productivity and reducing sick days and “presenteeism” – showing up without being engaged. The odds of contracting an injury or illness also increase dramatically with stress, poor lifestyle and low job satisfaction. “Exercise helps all these factors and improves the overall corporate culture, “he said.

In the long run, it’s up to the leaders of an organization to set the tone. High performers drive an organization and you need only watch their behavioural patterns to understand why, said Marty Parker, executive recruiter and author of Culture Connection. “Competitors can steal your strategy, but they can’t steal your culture,” he said. “Ethics and culture trump standard operating procedure every time.”

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