Workers stepping it up for fitness

Rose Seward (foreground) takes a call as her District of Columbia Department of Health co-workers line dance in their Washington office last week. The agency launched an elaborate workplace wellness program in May that included Instant Recess, walking clubs and other quick activity breaks.

FREY

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.

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.

I have written before 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 of Columbia's Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, which recently had 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 Washington 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 recently. 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 Brenda Anderson, 50, to turn on the tunes. Suddenly, there were nearly 30 folks gathered among 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 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.