A healthier workforce means fewer lost days, lower healthcare expenses and improved cognitive performance.

As I was waiting to meet my customer, the opening whistle blew and the day's team leader lined everyone up; three rows of about 10 with space for outstretched arms between each person. Their day was about to begin.

“OK everyone, today we're going to start with a few stretches - feet shoulder-width apart, take your right hand toward your left foot - easy now, just reach till you start to feel the burn, then hold it there.”

Your first thought might be that I was working for a dance troupe or a martial arts studio. Although this crew could certainly choreograph some great moves, their vocation involved heavy metal more than fancy footwork.

My customer was a locomotive maintenance shop and the crew I was watching included some of the toughest-looking iron benders you'd ever want to have on your side. Besides lunchtime, this was the only time during the day that they would even take off their hard hats. Yet, with all their skills, strength and experience, here they were doing calisthenics just like we used to do (or skip) in junior high phys ed.

Before getting on with my plumbing repairs, I asked the shop foreman about this novel way to start the day. He pointed with pride to the “Lost Days” chart. It touted close to a year of injury-free work among a group of about 30 men who work with seriously heavy tools and equipment. The foreman explained that the firm's insurance company recommended a fitness program to reduce injury claims. Since beginning a physical fitness regimen, not only had muscle strain injuries seen a major reduction, all injuries had been reduced.

Fit Body, Fit Mind

Depending upon the research I was able to scare up, fitness programs have been proven to reduce sick days by as much as half. Let's translate this to production numbers. How much revenue per day do your field personnel average? $1,000 per day is not an uncommon number. If a sick day costs you $1,000 in production, the fewer sick days you have to deal with and the better off your bottom line is. Some reports cited over three days saved by wellness programs. If saving a few thousand dollars a year sounds good, perhaps it's time to start a wellness program at your company.

Now, before you start pelting me with jelly donuts (raspberry is my favorite), keep in mind that my goal is to help you improve your business. I'm not selling fitness videos, super diets or even trying to make you feel guilty for being out of shape. After all, round is a shape, right?

You don't have to have a huge shop to reap the benefits. Even a one-man band can be more prosperous with a simple wellness program. I found several studies reporting improved mental capacity and problem-solving abilities in people who exercised regularly. A study by Purdue University found that a moderate exercise regimen could increase problem-solving speed and accuracy by 25 percent. The next time you encounter one of those Gordian knot problems, try doing a few jumping jacks to loosen up the old brain cells - after taking off your tool belt, of course!

Still not convinced? I know I risk sounding like a food processor commercial, but - there's more! To be sure, there's every brand of fitness program you can imagine on the market, each promoting the advantages of good health. Even Jack LaLanne is still promoting fitness as a lifestyle. He's been exercising on TV since 1951 and still works out two hours a day at age 89. But the real proof of the value of fitness is found in the way insurance companies promote it.

Every major health provider I could find offers some sort of fitness or wellness program. Even more telling is the fact that they offer wellness programs to their employees. After all, they're as interested in shaving costs and improving profits as you or I would be.

Now it's time for a reality check. As apprentices or laborers, we worked hard and steady. Besides being younger and more flexible, the steady regimen kept our muscles toned and we were practically invincible. As we moved up through the ranks, the physical demands were reduced, we added a few pounds - OK, some of us added a lot of pounds - and our joints grew stiffer.

At 20, we could swing a 12-pound sledge all day. At 40, we get someone else to do it while we read the prints or talk with the customer. A few times we may find ourselves hauling a hot water tank up the basement stairs. These brief moments of exertion place extra stress on our out-of-shape muscles and sluggish cardiovascular systems. If that tank decides to shift on its way up the stairs, we're at risk of overstretching and overexerting to get it under control. The result could be a trip to the chiropractor and a day or two in bed with muscle relaxants. Figuring for lost time and medical expenses, we would have been more profitable if we missed out on the job entirely.

The Fitness Payoff

Unfortunately, fitness programs are perceived as the domain of office executives more than that of trade professionals. For one thing, we're just too busy. How can we possibly schedule time for fitness when we already have the day booked from start to finish? Can we afford to block out 5 percent to 10 percent of our productive time for calisthenics? Will it pay off?

Committing to an investment is easier when we can plug numbers into a spreadsheet and calculate the outcome. There are tangible benefits, as mentioned earlier, including fewer lost days, lower healthcare expenses and, perhaps, improved cognitive performance. The nontangible benefits may result in a financial payoff, but a better lifestyle doesn't always calculate well in a spreadsheet.

For instance, people in fitness programs typically have more confidence and higher job satisfaction. As a contractor, these two traits should be good news. Higher confidence can result in better leadership, better decisions and better sales performance. Higher job satisfaction can result in lower turnover and improved recruiting. Can you quantify these benefits with a spreadsheet? As a contractor, probably not, but companies with large numbers of employees have been able to see the positive trends.

Implementing a program might involve starting a few minutes earlier in the day. Or, consider offering spiffs to employees who workout after hours. Some health clubs, including the YMCA, can record workouts, so it's not difficult to track activity.

My fitness regime consists of an hour at the YMCA three or four times per week. Those of you that know me know I'm no Jack LaLanne, but I do get a kick out of leaving my mid-20s son in the dust on the mountain bike trail … well, here in Texas, they're more like prairie bikes, but you get the point. I enjoy the sense of well-being that comes with lower blood pressure, more stamina and a clearer head. I like the bragging rights that come after 200 flights in 30 minutes on the Stairmaster. Oh, and I don't feel guilty about an occasional raspberry jelly donut either.