When Jeff Worstell starts looking at his watch around lunchtime, it’s not because he is getting hungry or bored – it simply means it’s about time for him to grab his gym bag and make his way to the YMCA down the street for his daily workout.

“If I’m in a meeting at 11:25 and it’s not over yet, I get a bit antsy,” Worstell says.

The 48-year-old Worstell, who is vice president of Cargill Pork’s live production has been going to the Wichita YMCA for his lunchtime workout with a group of co-workers for more than 10 of the 23 years he’s worked at the company.

“I haven’t gone so far as to block that time out on my daily calendar, but most people in the office know that’s my daily routine,” he says. “I think it shows dedication to the people I work with. Everyone can see that I’m committed to making sure I get physical exercise every day.”

A growing proportion of Corporate America is putting an emphasis on healthy living and many companies realize executives and managers who are committed to staying fit make better leaders. Many firms are showing support by offering discounts at fitness facilities, health care incentives or sponsor corporate fitness competitions.

The increasing cost of healthcare in the US is undoubtedly the impetus behind the corporate push toward encouraging and supporting healthy lifestyles by its employees. “It makes sense for corporations to encourage health and fitness as much as they can,” Worstell explains. “Healthier employees will have fewer sick days and, overall, be more productive. It benefits everyone.”

Creature of habit

Working out has been a part of Worstell’s weekly routine for as long as he can remember, “It’s always been an important part of my lifestyle.”

Most people at the Cargill offices are familiar with Worstell’s lunchtime workout regimen. “I’ve done it for so long that everyone just knows that’s where I am over lunch,” he says.

Barring work travel or other schedule-changing commitments, Worstell’s routine is set Monday through Friday. Each day it takes about one hour and 10 minutes for Worstell to walk to the YMCA (just down the street from the corporate offices in Wichita), workout, cleanup and get back to the office. His weekly workout routine involves weight training on Mondays and Fridays, cardio on Tuesdays and Thursdays and on Wednesdays he does a cardio/strength training combination often referred to as cross-fit.

“There’s a group of us that works out together, which keeps us all on track and motivated,” he explains. “And that competition of working out together pushes us a bit more, just like it does in business. You need more than one partner because one person will be out of town or in a meeting at some point,” Worstell says.

Worstell and his workout partners agree that daily exercise is the key to their continued productivity during the work day. “I have no doubt that I’m more productive in the afternoon after I’ve worked out over lunch,” Worstell says. “It really recharges my battery.

“My goal is to workout hard enough at lunch that I can’t think about anything else for that period of time.”

One rule during Worstell’s workout sessions is no discussions about work is allowed. “We’ve had to remind people that during our trip to the Y no one can talk about work,” he explains. “You get so much more out of your workout if you turn off the other distractions in your mind. Then when we get back to our desks we can focus all our energy on that afternoon’s work.”

Flexibility is key

Mary Thompson, president of Cargill Value Added Meats, Foodservice, also makes personal health and fitness a priority in her daily life.

“Mostly, I try to run or use the elliptical at the gym – it’s something I’ve always done to stay fit,” says Thompson. “OK, always is a strong term, I’ve always tried to do it.

“When I was in my 20s, I didn’t have to make a conscious effort to get exercise – now I do. After my second child and then turning 40, I started telling myself, ‘things have got to change here.’

“I try for 40 to 50 minutes of cardio three times a week,” she explains.

In a perfect world, Thompson would keep a regular weekly workout schedule and never stray from it, but she says for her that’s not realistic, so she takes it one day and week at a time.

“I’d like to have a regular routine, but really I exercise all different times of the day,” she says. “I have a job to do here [at Cargill] and I have three kids at home, and I travel a lot – so having the same exercise routine every day is tough.

“If I take my kids to one of their evening activities, I’ll drop them off and then go to the gym. At home sometimes I’ll run a few miles with my 13-year-old and then a few more miles with my 8-year-old on her bike. Sometimes I’ll go over lunch while I’m in the office,” Thompson says. “I know one of the cardinal rules of exercising is setting a time and sticking to it – but my life doesn’t work that way.

“My goal is to do 50 minutes three times a week, but if I can only get in 40 minutes three times a week I congratulate myself for getting that amount done instead of regretting that I didn’t get in that extra 30 minutes,” Thompson says. “The whole point is to not let it get you crazy. If needed, I’ll do 20 minutes in the morning and another 20 minutes in the evening. For me, flexibility is the key.”

The benefits of regular exercise for Thompson go beyond fitness. “I run, first and foremost, to stay fit and because I feel better when I exercise, but it also gives me more clarity of mind,” she explains. “After I’ve gone for a run, everything seems a lot more possible. That clarity of mind helps me get everything else in my personal and business life done.”

Corporate partnerships

Thompson has been with Cargill for 20 years, but just transferred to the meat side and to Wichita from Minneapolis one-and-a-half years ago. “One of the best things about moving to Wichita is the relationship with the Y,” she explains. “Cargill has been a big corporate supporter of the Y for years. Walking into the lobby at the YMCA and seeing the Cargill name displayed really makes you proud.”

“We’re very fortunate with Cargill Meat Solutions that we have a strong partnership with the YMCA,” Worstell says.

As a company, Cargill has been trying to encourage and support more fitness activities for its employees. Not only do employees get a free membership to the YMCA, but the company has supported the participation in other fitness activities. At the Cargill spring meeting in early April, the company sponsored its first 5K run and walk for employees. Organizers were encouraged that about one-third of the meeting’s attendees participated in the event.

The company also sponsored a group of employees participating in the Outback in the Ozarks 200-mile running relay in Eureka Springs, Ark., this past May.

In addition, Cargill is following the growing trend of offering health-insurance incentives to employees for maintaining healthier lifestyles.

“Employees and their spouses can get discounts on their health insurance by participating in healthy activities,” says Mike Martin, spokesman.

Working toward wellness

Austin, Minn-based Hormel Foods is also committed to the health and wellness of its employees. In 1990, Hormel introduced a wellness initiative that focused on encouraging and empowering employees to make healthy lifestyle choices through awareness, prevention and positive behavior change, according to Rick Williamson, manager of external communications.

In 2009, the program was refreshed to reflect the research and advances in health and wellness, and the program was re-launched as “Wellness Our Way.” Today, the results-oriented program is focused on helping employees live a healthier lifestyle. Hormel provides tools and resources to help employees.

“Hormel Foods is committed to our employees,” Williamson says. “Wellness Our Way is a great program that encourages employees to maintain a healthy lifestyle. At all of our locations, employees can participate in activities to promote wellness such as health fairs and group health-related activities.”

Through the Wellness Our Way program employees can get discounts to Weight Watchers and health club memberships. Employees can also take advantage of the company’s LifeWorks employee resource program, a confidential program to help employees and their families find practical solutions for issues (which includes tips and advice on staying healthy, financial issues, managing stress, raising children, relationships, assisting aging parents, etc.).

Corporate challenge

Some corporations are tapping into the competitive nature of their employees in an effort to encourage health and fitness as well as develop companywide teamwork. Started in 1980, the Kansas City Corporate Challenge is an Olympic-type event that allows Kansas City area corporations to compete with each other in a variety of sporting events. Events include basketball, soccer, bowling, track and field, biking, swimming and non-traditional events such as dodgeball, disc golf, horseshoes and darts.

Farmland Foods, Kansas City, Mo., is offering employees the chance to participate in this year’s Corporate Challenge competitions. The company hasn’t been involved in the program since 2008. Over the past five years, Farmland has added a fitness facility to its corporate headquarters and hired a Health and Wellness Coordinator as a part of its corporate commitment to health and wellness.

“Farmland Foods is proud to be an active member of the Kansas City community,” says Cindy Kirtley, director of employee benefits, health and wellness at Farmland. “Corporate Challenge builds camaraderie, supports our team members’ active lifestyles and connects Farmland with other local companies in a fun, engaging way.”