To state workers: get fit or lose your job?

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 crisis.

"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 Services estimates.

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 tide.

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 lose weight.

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 services.

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 rescinded.

McDonough's plan is different, and controversial, because it is one of the first times in the US that public-service employees, other than firefighters and police officers, would be ordered to exercise as a condition of their employment.

It could also be a tough sell in a state in which a police chief, Paul Goward of Winter Haven, was forced to resign his job this past October for writing a memo that asked the "jelly bellies" in his department to shape up.

Running and push-ups

The Corrections Department proposal demands that officers, regardless of rank or duty, meet minimum fitness requirements, such as completing a mile-and-a-half run in a set time and a certain number of push-ups, according to age group. Those who continually fail to meet standards would face disciplinary action that could result in demotion or dismissal.

McDonough believes that getting tough is the right approach to shake up a department still experiencing the aftereffects of a corruption scandal a year ago. His predecessor, James Crosby, was ousted and pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks, while allegations of steroid abuse among department staff were widespread.

"The two key elements of the job are being able to protect the public and being able to protect each other," McDonough says. "It may mean coming to the aid of a colleague, dashing two or three hundred yards, and, under stress, handling themselves and calming an issue. At any given moment, that might suddenly require agility, strength, and stamina."

The Florida Police Benevolent Association is keen to stress that its opposition is not on health grounds. "Who can be opposed to physical fitness?" asks executive director David Murrell. However, it is concerned that McDonough could be changing the terms of officers' employment without proper consultation.

"It's an issue of fairness," Mr. Murrell says. "We have officers who have worked for the department for 15 or 20 years and never had any physical requirements [upon them]. To have mandatory testing and be fired if they don't measure up is changing the rules."

Murrell offers one option: "If you want to make it voluntary and give them a bonus, we can live with that. It needs positive reinforcement, not negative."

McDonough says he is listening to concerns, but the union was represented on the panel that drew up the criteria, and he believes that 75 to 80 percent of the department's rank and file was in favor.

He aims to have the program running by the middle of the year, and he says he'll be the first to take the fitness test, with the intention of meeting the minimum standard for the youngest age group. McDonough, who is approaching retirement age, was also the first of the department's staff to take a drug test after he introduced mandatory testing a year ago. "It's a question to me of example, of never asking anyone to do what you wouldn't be prepared to do yourself," he says.

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