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To state workers: get fit or lose your job?

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As an Army platoon leader during the Vietnam War, James McDonough learned firsthand the importance of having every man under his command in peak physical condition.

Now, the former champion boxer and decorated combat veteran is under fire of a different kind – for his groundbreaking attempt to make staff fitness a high priority for Florida's prison department. It's what he sees as a key stage of the department's transformation after years of corruption and underperformance.

As the state's new secretary of Corrections, Mr. McDonough has proposed mandatory fitness levels for 19,000 of his employees – some of whom have desk jobs. It's meeting resistance from a union representing prison and probation officers and making experts wonder whether requiring workers to become physically fit, or risk losing their jobs, is the best way to tackle the country's growing obesity crisis.

"Anytime you compel people to do something, they're not going to put much effort into it," says Roy Shephard, a specialist in exercise science at the University of Toronto who has studied fitness programs in the workplace for more than four decades. "You're more likely to have success by offering incentives and encouragement [for employees to lose weight]."

Many employers thinking fitness

On-the-job fitness has become a hot topic in recent years as employers count the cost of a too-hefty workforce. US industry loses $13 billion and 39.3 million workdays every year through obesity-related lost productivity, absenteeism, higher health-insurance premiums, and medical expenses, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates.

With an estimated 65 percent of American adults overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and most spending half of their waking hours in the workplace, more employers are realizing they have a role to play in turning the tide.

Many private companies, including Motorola, Pfizer, Union Pacific, and General Motors, have made substantial investments in employee health, fitness, and well-being programs, with rewards ranging from iPods to cash handouts for workers who shape up and lose weight.

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