21 May 2007

The wellness wave

Healthy, well-adjusted employees can help create a healthy company, and fitness operators see potential in reaching out to create corporate wellness programmes

NINA SUEBSUKCHAROEN

While the concept of corporate wellness is still in its infancy in Asia, it is likely to flourish in the years to come if its popularity in Europe and US is anything to go by.

American and European companies have bought into the idea of corporate wellness, realising that if their staff are fitter and healthier then they will be happier and more productive, says Bryce Schneider, director of Body Torque Asia, which is opening a branch in Thailand after its success in Hong Kong.

He says wellness is especially pertinent in Asia where people generally work longer hours than their western counterparts. Companies offering corporate wellness packages will get more out of their staff and will see less turnover.

Mr Schneider noted that ''wellness'' is an evolving term in Asia and at the corporate level it has two elements. One is simply fitness centres such as Body Torque, which provide instruction, seminars or information sessions, while other firms have fully co-ordinated and managed programmes that work with others to facilitate a wellness programme.Asia is still learning about fitness, a good example being McKinsey Consulting in China, for which Body Torque's Hong Kong branch did a lot of work recently.

''But again that was more of an information session where we were able to get in front of all the staff and offer them information on personal training and nutrition and other more crucial things such as the Alexander Technique,'' said Mr Schneider, referring to a learning system that aims to promote effective behaviour through movement and curb unproductive habits.

The corporate wellness trend started about 10 years ago and has greatly increased in popularity. The US has traditionally been where fitness operators in Asia get most of their material.

''It always tended to be a little further advanced in the sense of sophistication of the industry and we are still catching up,'' says Mr Schneider. ''Once penetration goes up in the industry _ as in Thailand, where the market is really young _ once all of that catches up, fitness centres proliferate and companies offer fitness services. Then we would probably see consolidation and other companies buying into it because awareness will be much higher.''

Even the best intentions are no substitute for a qualified fitness trainer, however. Mr Schneider himself holds a bachelor's degree in applied science in human movement and a master's degree in sports marketing from Melbourne University.

He explained that applied science in human movement is a full science degree based around the body and fitness. ''It's a really good course to do and it's a good platform to build from.''

However, one does not need a university degree to become a personal trainer because some people can get accreditation from the US or Australia and become a certified physical instructor.

And this draws attention to one of the complexities of the industry in that there could be people who receive certification and call themselves trainers without knowing anything about the industry, the process of the industry and the importance of a personal trainer.

''The problem also is that the industry is in its infancy,'' he says. ''There is a lot of interest, and there is a sexy image to being a personal trainer. We found that when we first started in Hong Kong that you get all sorts of people coming in and wanting to be personal trainers.''

However, this often changes when these trainers are actually asked instruct members and perform the trainer role.

Mr Schneider again warned that as with any industry, the fitness business has both good and bad operators. He advises people considering the idea of enrolling in a club to ask the right questions and look at the contract they are signing carefully because they might miss things that they weren't aware of. It is also sensible to ask for a free introductory session before becoming a member.

Some might wonder how long it takes to get fit and to this Mr Schneider answered that each individual has his own lifestyle challenges. A 60-year-old businessman who sits all day would benefit from working out once a week, but if he could go to the club three times a week it would be much better.

''People who tend to be sedentary, who don't seem to do much at all, all experience good results quickly. It's when you get to a certain level that it's harder to achieve goals.''

Mr Schneider encourages companies to pay for their staff to go to the gym maybe twice a week.

For younger people, going to fitness centres also seems to have an entertainment value and this is what the bigger fitness chains are cashing in on. On the other hand, for the older set, entertainment can mean having a really good rapport with the staff.

''It's really important for us to work with people to get them to appreciate that we are all built to the body shape we are born with but that we can optimise that body shape, we can optimise health, we can optimise the lifestyle, we can increase people's functionality to get better quality of life.''

On the Net: www.bodytorque.com