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Posted: September 01, 2008

Corporate health

Health clubs pumped up by wellness trend

Lisa Marshall

As employers grow increasingly interested in employee waistlines, health clubs across Colorado are rolling out the red carpet for Corporate America, offering group discounts, free club newsletters, wellness and nutrition courses, and even in-office fitness classes.

"It has definitely been good for business," Colorado Athletic Club General Manager Bill Craig says.

The club’s Corporate Fitness Partnership Program includes more than 150 Colorado companies, from CH2M Hill to IBM. Some "partners" negotiate a discount for their employees, while a few subsidize their monthly membership, according to the club’s website. Meanwhile, others call on the club staff for help putting on fitness-oriented events or providing in-office massage or stress management courses.

"We try to be a resource, to come alongside them and help them in an area where they may not have the expertise," Craig says.

Tom Hartman, membership director for the YMCA of Metro Denver, estimates that 40 percent to 50 percent of its members arrive at the club through some employer initiative.

"I have had a lot more inquiries from companies lately," says Hartman, whose club boasts roughly 75 corporate partners, including its newest addition: RTD. He says that only one or two of those companies pay their employees’ club fees in full.

Depending on the size of the company, the YMCA may waive or greatly reduce the initiation fee and then cut 10 percent off monthly dues. The YMCA also offers a service where it will track employee use of the club, and report it to the company. (That service is more popular among companies subsidizing employee memberships).

Other clubs, such as Curves or 24-Hour Fitness, offer free tours or seven-day passes for those wishing to test the waters.

"Clubs are really starting to target the corporate market," says Tom Richards, senior manager of public policy for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). "Aside from just discounts they are offering more wellness programs and educational programs about general health."

According to the IHRSA, health clubs generate 15.6 percent of their memberships through corporate programs and, on average, those who join via a corporate partnership get a 50 percent discount on their initiation and a 10 percent savings on dues.

Few companies subsidize employee memberships, in part because tax law treats those memberships as income, which employees have to pay taxes on.

"If a company wants to subsidize $20 per month for a health club membership, that is considered a taxable fringe benefit to employees. It creates not only an economic barrier but an administrative burden for companies," Richards says.

IHRSA recently introduced a bill, the Workforce Health Improvement Program Act, which would change that. And if it passes, Richards believes even more employees will be hitting the club on their boss’ dime: "It’s a small step that will have a big impact."

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