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Why more of us than ever are working out at work

Uncommon
Uncommon, a co-working space, offers on-site fitness classes Credit: Uncommon

Once a month, in a conference room on one of the 11 floors of Google’s London office, you will find 25 executives lying on their backs, eye masks on, drifting off to the soundwaves emanating from a selection of gongs or crystal bowls being 'played'. This isn’t a one-off transplanted from the green juice hinterlands of their Silicon Valley HQ but symptomatic of the ever-blurring line between work and wellness, where businesses are racing to expand their physical and mental health offerings to employees.

In the two years since Laura Franses, who previously worked at Channel 4, set up Crystal Sound Lounge, things have “definitely changed” from the days of one broken treadmill in the basement constituting the work gym. From entire floors of super-luxe equipment at co-working spaces to companies hiring outside help to put on lunchtime HIIT or pilates for tightly-wound employees, there is a concerted effort afoot to broaden the meaning of ‘flexible working.’ 

“We all have our theories about people not really knowing how to cope with so much technology and the onslaught of their phones and computers,” Franses says of the organisations that enlist her services. A gong bath, as the class is known, allows her frazzled clientele to “switch off their brain and reboot it so they come out energised.” Unlike classes held at other offices, such as kickboxing or yoga, “it doesn’t involve any physical activity, there’s no barrier to entry. Everyone in the workforce can do it.”

Others, meanwhile, see their lunch break as an ideal window for working up a sweat.

Stefano Iachella, a 31-year-old who works for an IT company, attends weekly crossfit-style classes in his office gym. Led by an instructor, he describes the hour-long sessions as “really positive, as they help to build relations across teams, to reduce stress and anxiety and to increase motivation.”

Research charts a range of positive effects exercising can have on work performance: one 2015 study found that the volume of physical activity employees carried out resulted in improved rates of mental wellbeing and productivity, while another study of three workplaces, with on-site fitness facilities, in the south west of England, published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, found that ‘workday exercise can improve white-collar workers’ mood and self-reported performance on days when they exercise at work over days when they do not.’ 

That mentality is in full-flow at Uncommon, a co-working space that next week opens a ‘Well Studio’ at its Liverpool Street branch, with the entire eighth floor dedicated to Peloton bikes - £2,000 each, beloved by the likes of David Beckham and Leonardo DiCaprio - and meditation pods. Their research found that 92 per cent of UK office occupiers prefer ‘wellness-enabled buildings’.

This is the same case at FORA, another co-working space with sites across London and Reading, which says they “are seeing a real demand” for the onsite fitness options they provide. Their residents include firms such as Sony and Dropbox, who partake in the likes of HIIT and yoga classes on offer. In fact, Dropbox cited moving to the Soho branch “to make wellbeing a priority”. They have their own dedicated class every week, “truly integrating wellness into their workplace culture”. 

Whether workers who sweat together stay together remains to be seen. A cynic might question whether this fitness drive is simply a motive for staff spending longer at the office. But James Balfour, co-founder of 1Rebel and son of Mike Balfour OBE, who launched Fitness First, sees things another way. “There is a rising trend of employers looking for fitness solutions because they know that a fitter workforce results in a higher workforce retention and happier employees,” he explains.

And for those unable to do so on-site, there are other options: his boutique gym is this autumn launching the ‘Battle of Banks’ in which the studio, whose corporate clients include Jimmy Choo, Universal and WPP, are pitting the City’s largest financial firms against one another to see whose staff complete the most classes in a month. For the two companies who rank highest, the winner will be declared after a final super-class in which they will compete using treadmills and floor exercises to see who is ‘financially fittest’ of them all. 

It is not just offices that are becoming more sweat-friendly, but gyms are expanding their work facilities, too. Balfour explains that “more and more fitness clubs are becoming lifestyle destinations.” At his studio’s six London sites, exercisers are put through punishing routines in darkened rooms - outside which are airy spaces filled with tables and charging points to “allow guests to work pre or post class [and] empower them to make the most out of their time.”

This blurring of lines between working and workouts might not suit everyone - not to mention the awkward glances that could ensue after an ill-fated exchange with a boss in the office changing room. For 36-year-old lawyer Ami Wise, the concept of in-office yoga, as per her last firm, was bizarre. “The mindframe required at work is almost the opposite of what yoga encourages,” she explains, “so I found it really difficult doing it among colleagues.” Claire Berliner, however, has found the reverse: “Pilates at work has been a total godsend,” she says of the sessions Exercise in the City run at The London Library, where she is an events manager. “I had to give up the class I’d been going to previously when I started this job because it became too hard to fit in around full time work and childcare. Doing a class at work solves all those problems,” Berliner, 40, explains.

For office workers, on-site exercise can also help to reverse some of the physical complaints caused by desk-dwelling. Frame fitness studios have introduced Anti-Desk Yoga to their timetable; instructor Zoe Sharp also holds classes at offices such as American Express and Deliciously Ella for those in need of assuaging modern day afflictions like crippling tech neck. “The bigger muscle groups get tight and lazy sitting at a desk all day,” she explains, adding that “we often unconsciously build up tension in the jaw, neck flexors, forehead, wrists and fingers too,” which can cause headaches and tooth grinding.

“A class specifically designed to iron out these smaller areas of tension has a really quick impact on our overall sense of wellbeing, as well as refreshing our eyes after staring at screens for hours on end.”

A sweat-drenched misstep in front of colleagues may not be the most comforting thought. But with offices’ focus on mental and physical health growing, perhaps Lycra will prove to be the great workplace leveller - and one that tones you up, too.