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Working Out at Work Improves Mental Health

Half of all employers in this country now offer workplace wellness plans, designed to improve employees’ physical health. Now researchers at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA have discovered another upside to these plans: improved mental health.

For the study, researchers analyzed 281 participants in UCLA’s wellness program and found that at the conclusion of a 12-week fitness program, mental health improved by nearly 19 percent, compared to baseline levels measured at the beginning of the program.

“Many employers have started to question the value of such employee wellness plans, and have sought evidence that the financial investments in the plans can result in improvements in employee health and productivity that can be measured,” said Prabha Siddarth, a research statistician at the Semel Institute and the study’s lead author. “This study illustrates the potential benefits that have not been well-studied, and are not the focus of most wellness plans—the value that comes from improved mental health.”

The Bruin Health Improvement Program, modeled after cross-fit training and designed to strengthen a sense of community among participants, differs each day. Study participants completed a survey at the beginning and end of the program that measured physical and emotional health, vitality, social functioning, general health perceptions, bodily pain and any limitations due to physical or emotional problems.

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Researchers discovered that “participants showed strong improvements across all domains of mental health with sizable effects,” said David Merrill, a UCLA assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and a co-author of the study. For the overall mental health score, he noted, participants scoring at the 50th percentile on mental health, meaning “average” mental health, scored as high as the 69th percentile after participation in the wellness program.

“This was the first study of a workplace wellness program that showed a clear link between improvement in physical health and improvements in mental health, quality of life, stress and energy,” Merrill said. “Participants reported improved feelings of calm, social satisfaction, ability to cope with stress and an overall sense of well-being. They also reported improvement in their energy levels and better productivity at work.”

According to Siddarth, mental illness accounts for more than half of all health-care costs, so employee wellness benefits are welcome. “This data strongly suggests that workplace wellness plans have a positive effect on people’s mental state of mind as well as their physical wellness,” Siddarth said. “Targeting workplace mental health, and using such exercise and wellness programs, can effectively reduce absenteeism, disability and productivity losses, and reduce the health-care costs associated with those issues.”

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