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Why quality fitness benefits are crucial for employers

Whether you offer fitness classes, equipment or nutritious snacks, investing in your employees’ movement and health will always be smart.

3-minute read

Access to an on-site office gym may not be as important as it once was. Fifty-one percent of American office workers are expected to work in hybrid roles, and 20% are expected to be fully remote by the end of 2023.1 But that doesn’t mean offering your employees fitness benefits doesn’t matter. Just the opposite: around half of Americans identify wellness as a top priority in their day-to-day lives.2 And the benefits of a healthier workforce are clear for employers.

Indeed, the money that organizations spend on fitness benefits is worth every penny. According to a landmark study for benefits leaders, for every $1 spent on wellness benefits, organizations can expect to see a return of $1.50.3 That’s likely the leading reason why employee fitness programs have gone from being “a nice extra” to “a strategic imperative.”4 A full 81% of large organizations now offer some form of wellness benefit to their employees.5

Prioritizing your employees’ physical fitness pays dividends such as helping attract and retain talent to support the bottom line. Here’s how and why offering fitness benefits can work for your organization.

In today’s world, where not everyone is in the office and fully remote and hybrid positions aren’t going away, overall fitness is down. These benefits can help.

The pandemic has had a lasting effect on Americans’ physical fitness, including taking fewer steps a day now than pre-pandemic.6 The effects are significant, contributing to several poor health outcomes such as obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure.

Even at the best of times, employees’ physical inactivity is a costly proposition. The World Health Organization estimates that it will wind up costing employers upwards of $300 billion between 2020 and 2030.7 Meanwhile only 23% of Americans meet the minimum requirements for daily exercise.8 Adding fitness as a part of daily life via a workplace wellness program can help ensure that employees remain committed to their health whether in office or not. This includes access to discounted gym memberships, virtual fitness programs and fitness-focused employee resource groups.

Physical activity is linked to fewer sick days, higher productivity and lower health care spend.

Consider this the ultimate trifecta of positive results. According to a survey, 62% of employees with access to a wellness program reported a greater feeling of efficacy and productivity at work.9 Thanks to those same wellness programs, employees were present at work far more than they might otherwise have been. Fifty-six percent of employees took fewer sick days since beginning the wellness program.10 In an age of rising “presenteeism”11 — feeling as though you must show up to work, even when you’re feeling unwell — a shift toward active engagement has the potential to be game-changing for employers.

Studies also indicate just how much implementing a fitness benefit can move the needle on employers’ health care spend. In one recent study, participants who engaged in physical exercise for at least 150 minutes per week were found to require less health care overall. They also had fewer emergency room visits, hospital admissions and primary care physician visits than participants who didn’t hit that threshold for movement.12

Attractive fitness benefits can tip the recruitment and retention balance in your favor.

Seventy-three percent of workers say they consider health and wellness benefits, particularly fitness amenities, when evaluating a job offer. And among young jobseekers — those aged 18 to 34 — the rate is 87%.13

Current employees also greatly value these benefits. One study showed that 80% of workers whose employers offer wellness programming report being happy at work, and 85% intend to stay at their current job.14 How do those numbers change for employees without a wellness program at work? According to the same study, only 40% of employees say they enjoy their work and 58% say they plan to stay at their current company.15 The numbers speak for themselves.

An investment in employee health strengthens an organization’s overall culture — and tells employees that their well-being matters.

Signaling to your employees that you both value and support their continued health and well-being can have a major impact. Wellness programs can foster a sense of belonging and togetherness, both of which are key ingredients in improving employee morale. In fact, 72% of employees say it’s important for them to feel like part of a community at work.16 In addition, fitness programs can kickstart the journey back to mental wellness, thanks to the known psychological benefits of exercise. All in all, the takeaway is clear: an investment in employee health pays off for employees and employers alike.

Learn more about how Optum is helping employees prioritize fitness benefits with One Pass Select.


  1. Gartner. Gartner forecasts 39% of global knowledge workers will work hybrid by the end of 2023. Accessed May 14, 2023.
  2. McKinsey. Still feeling good: The U.S. wellness market continues to boom. Accessed June 12, 2023.
  3. Soeren M, Liu H, Caloyeras J, et al. Do workplace wellness programs save employers money? Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014.
  4. Harvard Business Review. What’s the hard return on employee wellness programs? Accessed June 12, 2023.
  5. Kaiser Family Foundation. Employer Health Benefits: 2020 Annual Survey. Accessed June 12, 2023.
  6. Desine S, Master H, Annis J, et al. Daily step counts before and after the COVID-19 pandemic among all of us research participants. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(3):e233526.
  7. World Health Organization. Global Status Report on Physical Activity 2022. Accessed June 12, 2023.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Accessed June 12, 2023.
  9. United Health Group. Study: Employees with access to wellness programs say they are more willing to devote time to their health compared to people without such initiatives. Accessed June 12, 2023.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Harvard Business Review. Presenteeism: At work—but out of it. Accessed June 12, 2023.
  12. Lin C, Ball T, Gentile N, et al. Associations between physical activity vital sign in patients and health care utilization in a health care system, 2018–2020. J Phys Act Health. 2022; 20(1)28–34.
  13. Office Team. Survey: 73 percent of workers consider health and wellness offerings when choosing a job. Accessed June 12, 2023.
  14. United Health Group. Study: Employees with access to wellness programs say they are more willing to devote time to their health compared to people without such initiatives. Accessed June 12, 2023.
  15. Ibid.
  16. O.C. Tanner. 5 culture trends for 2023. Accessed June 12, 2023.