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My workplace fitness resolution

By Vicky Hallett, Published January 10, 2012

I’m not saying my co-workers are fat. In fact, a fair number of them are toothpick skinny — including, unfairly, the guy who brings in his latest cupcake creation every other day. Many of them are also super-active, always running, biking and yoga-ing in their free time.

But at my office, we sit. We have instant-message conversations instead of crossing the room to talk face-to-face. We wait by our phones for that source to call. We stare at computer screens for hours.

Vicky Hallett


Get off your duffs and get moving in the office! Try these 12 exercises designed for you to do in your cubicle.

Some of that sitting is necessary, or we’d never manage to put out a daily paper with a staff of less than two dozen. (I work at Express, the commuter tabloid owned by The Washington Post.) But there has to be wiggle room for at least a 10-minute break.

So that’s my new year’s resolution: I’m starting a daily activity that’ll get all my office mates out of their chairs, raise their heart rates and limber up stiff muscles.

If the concept sounds familiar, maybe you read my May 2010 column about Instant Recess, an accessible aerobics program developed by UCLA’s Toni Yancey to promote a culture of physical activity at workplaces. For the story, I stopped by the offices of the District’s Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, which had recently implemented the 10-minute stretching and strutting sessions. The scene was a little bit goofy but a lot of fun, and I left feeling downright jealous.

Although there are wellness offerings in the Post building where my office is located, there’s nothing like Instant Recess: something everyone could do without changing clothes or worrying that they couldn’t keep up.

As inspired as I was, I continued to sit and IM and wait and stare. That is, until I paid a visit to the D.C. Department of Health last month. The agency launched an elaborate workplace wellness program in May that included Instant Recess, walking clubs and other quick activity breaks. The one that has really caught on, especially as the weather has turned colder, is twice-daily line dancing.

It’s an informal diversion that has been popular among employees for years. “But it didn’t have the administration buy-in before,” explains Zaneta Brown, who’s the work site wellness committee chairwoman (as well as the chief of the Child, Adolescent and School Health Bureau). 

Now it’s not only acceptable but encouraged to bust a move. So one afternoon I arrived at the Community Health Administration at 4, just in time for 50-year-old Brenda Anderson to turn on the tunes. Suddenly, there were nearly 30 folks gathered between the cubicles doing the Wobble — and teaching me the steps. They shouted out requests for the next number, and a country tune won out. I was grapevining, spinning and, soon, slipping out of my cardigan. “We all dress in layers now,” 51-year-old Georgette Carter-Smith told me. 

They’ve started to take off a lot more than sweaters. “Doing this encourages you to do more,” says Anderson, who’s lost 23 pounds since May. For her, the line dancing led to Zumba, keeping a food diary and partnering with a co-worker to improve their eating habits.

Even if you have a medical condition that means you can’t easily stand up, you’re invited to come line dance. “We’ve had people in chairs moving their feet and arms,” says Karen Watts, chief of the Perinatal and Infant Health Bureau. “It fit what was going on with them.”

The plan is to eventually find what fits with every group of employees. Everything that’s happened over the past eight months has been something of a pilot program, Brown explains. Within the next couple of months, the agency expects to hire a full-time work site wellness coordinator. Brown predicts that by summer, the department will be able to help roll out similar programs at other D.C. agencies. (They’ll be mandatory if the Workplace Wellness Act, which council member Mary Cheh introduced last year, ever goes into effect.)

That sounds like a lot more Instant Recess and line dancing. Hopefully, by next year, we’ll all be taking a stand, even if it’s just for 10 minutes.

Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.

More online Read Vicky’s 2010 Instant Recess column and other fitness coverage at washingtonpost.com/wellness .

tell your boss it’s time to shape up

UCLA’s Toni Yancey and D.C. Department of Health staffers mapped out a few first steps for me to get my Instant Recess program started:

Get the boss on board. Typically, the selling point for Instant Recess is the financial benefit to the company. These activity breaks can lower health-care costs, reduce sick days and boost productivity. The part that appeals to me (and I think will also win over my boss) is the bonding factor. It’s a chance to interact with everyone in the office, including people you don’t work with regularly. Managers can’t merely agree to the program. They need to be champions, so everyone knows it’s really okay to participate.

Ask around. Surveying co-workers on which activities they’d be interested in (dance, yoga, sports moves?), when they’d want to do it and what sort of music should be playing will make them more likely to show up, Yancey says. She advises checking out Instant Recess videos on YouTube for ideas.

Recruit a team. It helps to select “spark plugs,” Yancy’s term for individuals who assist in planning and encourage different segments of the office to join in. The best kind of person to recruit? Someone slightly older and not particularly athletic with a lot of institutional memory.“If that person is willing, other people will be willing,” she says.

Start small. It’s important not to schedule anything too tricky right away. “If it’s too difficult, you’ll lose people,” Yancey says. For simple line dances, DOH workers suggest the Electric Slide and the Cupid Shuffle.

But think big. There’s nothing like a showy kickoff, ideally with the top brass in attendance, Yancey says. Because I don’t have a budget, she suggests pairing the launch with an all-staff meeting. I have something much more exciting in the works that I’ll reveal in a future column.

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