But the trend is slowly changing now with Corporate India taking some time out to head for gyms, sports fields, mountains, rivers and spas to rejuvenate themselves and give companies a better quality workforce. From perks like medical cover and health insurance to memberships in gyms and fitness centres, top executives are getting an attractive deal from their companies which can help put them on the fitness map.
The paunch is out now and muscles are in! And its sending a signal that the Indian white collar worker is no longer a relic of history -- the brown sahib who revelled in afternoon siestas and cuppas of chai! Corporate India is on the move, not only in international markets but also on treadmills and exercise bikes in gyms -- outside and in their offices.
"Fitness as a whole doesnt just benefit employees, but their employers as well," says Leena Mogre, fitness guru and chief operating officer of Indian operations, Golds Gym, which is the worlds largest gym chain.
"A company that inculcates fitness as a part of its employee benefits will see a marked reduction in absenteeism, positive attitudes amongst the workforce, high self-esteem and a better output," she also adds.
Ms Mogre explains how companies can cut costs of insurance and medical bills, by keeping the workforce working out. "Its basic -- the more fit you are, the less sick you get and, therefore, the less medical expenses you have," she says.
The Tata group, for example, has a strong commitment to its employees health and the groups various companies tackle fitness issues in their individualistic ways. Far from the staid image the group has acquired through its 125 year-old history, activities like the Tata Sports Club, Tata Adventure Foundation are changing the perception of the group. "The Tata Adventure Foundation has activities such as rock climbing, para-sailing, river rafting, among the activities of the foundation, which is headed by the mountain lady Bachendri Pal, the first woman to surmount Mount Everest. This allows Tata employees to discover and push themselves," said a Tata group spokesperson.
Others choose a more relaxing approach to health and fitness and head to spas and ayurvedic hotspots around the country. According to Divya Prakash Ahuja, director, marketing, Ananda in the Himalayas -- an exclusive destination spa, located near Rishikesh -- corporate honchos come at regular intervals to de-stress and rejuvenate their energies and their executives, soon follow suit.
"Though most of the times for special workshops like team building exercises, motivation exercises, leadership training (using Yoga, Ayurveda, adventure and meditation) etc, the company foots the bill, corporate honchos from the Munjals, the Hindujas etc and even middle management managers use Ananda on personal expenses," he adds.
Fitness plays a major role at Hughes Software Systems. Their office is situated in a suburb of Delhi and there are 1,350 employees whose average age is around 27. "We feel responsible for their health and welfare," says Sandeep Kumar, senior manager, HR, Hughes Software Systems.
This new image of a caring company says Ms Mogre, is the way companies are now trying to increase retention rates among employees.
"When employers are viewed as caring and an employee feels that the company truly is interested in his/her well-being, an immediate affinity between the two is felt -- thus loyalties increase and so do retention rates," she says.
Hughes Software, established way back in 1995, installed a gym in its premises during the inception of the company. "The gym is as old as the organisation. The idea is to look beyond work -- to look at the work-life balance, which we propagate as an organisation," says Mr Kumar. Spread over 2,500 square feet, the gym has a sauna and caters to a wide range of cardio vascular exercises, aerobic and other weight training exercises.
Vandan Saini, a senior executive (legal--consumer electronics), LG Electronics India, is a prime example of how a corporates interest in the fitness of employees translates into a more productive workforce. With a work profile that includes frequent trips to courts, Ms Saini still manages to work out in the company gym for 15 minutes, three to four days in a week. "I feel much more rejuvenated. In fact, the day I miss my work-outs, I feel that I have missed something in life," she says.
As Ms Mogre explains, when people work out, the BMR (Basic Metabolism Rate) increases -- blood starts circulating and simply put -- your brain functions better and more clearly. "People in India tend not to work out at times like lunch. Ideally, they eat a heavy meal in their one-hour lunch break, feel sated, heavy and sleepy and then post-lunch, try to recover with tea breaks. So, instead of the ideal four hours they should be putting in after lunch, they end up with half of that," she says.
Ideally, according to Ms Mogre, people should, in their lunch hour, spend 30 minutes exercising, followed by a five-minute shower and a ten-minute lunch. "A schedule like that freshens you to the extent that you would be in the morning and increases the output and also improves quality of work," she advises.
Subhinder Singh Prem, executive director, sales and marketing, Reebok India Company, sums up the situation rather aptly. "Fifteen years back, if you took a day off to just relax and unwind, your boss would not be too worried. But today, people start getting worried if you take a day off. Who will finish the work, they ask"
In the last decade, gyms seem to have changed track -- going in for not only a face-lift but a complete image overhaul. "Earlier, gyms were associated with body building. Today nine out of ten people come to a gym for fitness purposes. They want to get rid of all their medical ailments," observes Rahul Narang, proprietor of South Delhi-based Olympia gym. At the face of it, everyone wants to cash in on the gym boom.
A good gymnasium will need investments ranging anywhere between Rs 1.5 crore and Rs 2 crore. The break-even period would be anywhere between three and five years. In fact, Mr Narang says that he has seen more gyms closing down, than actually opening up in the capital in the last one and a half years. "Many of these gyms were situated in good localities and had state-of-the-art equipment, but closed down due to lack of service," he says.
More than 30 per cent of Olympias clients are executives from the corporate world. "In fact, many managers pay fees for their employees and regularly take feedback from us on whether the employee is taking the course seriously and is he regular to the gym etc," says Mr Narang.
A feeling echoed in Golds Gym. "We offer corporate packages for upto five people for Rs 1,30,000. A lot of inclusives are included and we regularly provide a feedback on the employees performance at the gym. If the employee gets lazy and doesnt turn up -- we play the alarm clock, call them up and remind them," Ms Mogre says.
Delhi-based Ozone offers different corporate membership programmes -- individual membership programmes are priced at Rs 40,000 per year, while the 5-member corporate plan is priced at Rs 2,00,000 per year. Ozone is also targeting corporate travellers -- here the package is priced at Rs 30,000 for 100 visits per year.
Fitness and gym chains such as Golds, Ozone, Talwalkars and others are spreading their wings rapidly and are becoming business entities in their own right.
Some others like Mr Prem of fitness major Reebok are, however, not intimidated by the huge investments that gym facilities entail. "This is one of the very few businesses if managed properly, gets cash positive early. This is because in most gyms, club members pay cash upfront," he says.
Reebok India is joining the fray and has plans to open commercial gyms in the country by next year. "These would be big format gyms, nearly 10 times the size of the current gyms in the country. We are talking to a few investors," is all Mr Prem is willing to reveal.
With industry names such as Surendra Hiranandani, Niranjan Thakur, Sunil Lulla, Yash and Avanti Birla, Nirmal Thakkar and Vivek Talwar all regular gym goers, their staff are quick to follow.
"In the long run, its a matter of quality of productivity," says Ms Mogre.
ICICI Bank, Colgate Palmolive India Ltd, Procter & Gamble, Orange, MTV, Pfizer, Satyam, Wipro, Microsoft India are among the first in the country to have world-class gyms within the office premises.
"The attitude in this office is that for optimum quality work -- a clear mind and healthy body are of immense importance. We push ourselves to extremes, and understand the need to stop fatigue in its tracks. The organisation has an international policy of encouraging fitness to prevent burn-outs, cardiac problems or anything else that can arise from a high stress level job. Our gym is open to all our employees -- designation being irrelevant," says the director of a multinational based in India.
India Inc has begun the walk that may soon lead to a jog, and hopefully lead it into the international iron-man championships. But if that dream seems too unrealistic, corporate India has at least realised the value of its employees health and through its focus on employee fitness will soon see it reflecting in its topline as well as bottomline. Who knows India Inc may well be the benchmark of HR policies concerning health and fitness for the rest of the world.
While we wait for that dream to come true -- get on those treadmills, pump that iron and say goodbye to that wonderful Indian sign of prosperity -- the Paunch.