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Workplace fitness on the cheap

When you walk into the public health building in Kingston, the first thing you'll see is the staircase at the centre of the lobby. It has pride of place in the three-floor structure, the elevators hidden from sight. The message is clear: Take the stairs. Improve your health. And the staircase is usually busy, with staff and guests ascending and descending.

Downstairs in the basement, less visible but also worth attention, is a fitness circuit. It's simple, drab and low tech, but a clever idea that the local health unit promotes through its workplace wellness program in the three Southern Ontario communities it serves and might be worth copying for your own workplace.

The building has a fitness room, as many organizations do, with treadmills, weights, yoga mats, and the usual apparatus. Staffers pay a nominal $5 monthly fee that covers replacing or adding equipment (this is a publicly funded agency, after all). But usually that physical activity requires changing into exercise clothes and devoting a significant chunk of time. The fitness circuit, on the other hand, takes about 15 minutes to complete – less if you choose to skip a few exercises – and most people don't bother changing out of their work clothes, they just switch into sneakers. All it requires if your organization wants one are some posters (printed from PDFs which the Kingston health unit eagerly supplies), some hooks on the wall, a few tension bands, and a skipping rope. Simple and cheap.

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You hit the first station when you descend a key stairway to the basement and are greeted by a sign suggesting you power walk for one minute to warm up. For many people, that just means walking along the corridor until the building has been circled. It's not a particularly attractive walk, just a concrete block rectangular corridor, but it gets the pulse up anyway.

The next exercise involves basic squats with a shoulder press, using tension bands the participant stands on, to work the upper and lower body. After 12 of those, individuals walk a few feet down the corridor to the next poster marking an exercise station, and immerse themselves in jumping jacks for one minute. "I love jumping jacks. If you're cold, you can get the heat up," says Lara Robert, a program assistant and evangelist for the circuit.

At the next station, the participant takes one of the tension cords hanging near a doorway, twists it around a door knob, and standing tall, squeezes the shoulder blades together and pulls the bands, working the upper body. That's followed by an aerobic walk (or run, if you prefer) up a staircase – not the main one in the lobby, so no visitors are endangered – for as many floors as you prefer. "I've gone up to the top but it depends on how much sleep I got last night, the time of day, and the clothes I'm wearing," Ms. Robert says.

That's followed, in turn, by lunges, skipping with a rope (or no rope if you prefer), a chest press pulling tension bands, a diagonal "wood chop" in which you hold the bands down with a foot and pull up to the other side as if chopping wood, and finally, cool down, walking around the circuit until your heart rate is back to normal. "Then it's back to work," says Debbie O'Grady, a physical activity specialist with the unit who helped develop the circuit.

Exertion levels are self-monitored according to posters at each station. Participants are expected to aim at something between moderate and vigorous activity, the former defined as breathing more heavily than normal and being able to talk, not sing, while at the higher level the individual should be on the verge of becoming uncomfortable with shortness of breath and an inability to speak more than a few words.

Staffers will use the circuit individually or in groups – it can be fun when the hallway is filled with a number of colleagues at different stages of the circuit. It's used more in winter and inclement weather, with employees preferring the outdoors for walks during better weather. "It's a great way to break up the day. You're constantly moving," Ms. Robert says. "It helps work-life balance as you exercise right on site."

The Kingston public health team has recently added another low-cost health promotion venture: A garden. The experts on staff show novices how to garden, with the food they harvest going to a local group, Loving Spoonful, which promotes community gardens to grow healthy food for those below the poverty line. Physical activity for a noble cause.

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Companies considering wellness initiatives are often deterred by cost. But the Kingston health unit is showing it can be done for next to nothing.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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