Corporate memberships of fitness centres see a quantum leap More employers in Hong Kong are encouraging their staff to join health clubs to stem corporate medical bills which have hit record levels. The soaring medical costs are blamed on the inactive lifestyle of Hong Kong's army of office-dwelling, coffee-drinking, white-collar workers. Net medical insurance claims - covering everything from the common cold to chronic illnesses - rose more than 40 per cent in five years to $2.2 billion last year, outpacing the growth in premiums. In the United States, health problems arising from obesity alone are estimated to cost companies US$117 billion a year. In Britain a report estimated 18 million working days are lost annually because of health problems associated with being overweight. 'I don't think Hong Kong companies are immune to something that is happening around the world,' said Kent Richards, the managing director in Hong Kong of Fitness First, a global health club operator. He said local companies were waking up to the idea of keeping their staff fit, with the number of new members joining the chain as part of a corporate scheme increasing 138 per cent in the first 10 months of this year, compared with the same period last year. 'What we are seeing are arrangements where their employees can get some sort of corporate rate,' said Tony Falso, a compensation consultant with human resources specialists Watson Wyatt. 'The companies aren't buying the memberships for their staff outright yet.' A recent government survey categorised 58 per cent of the adult population as 'inactive', meaning they did not take enough exercise. Gym memberships remain a rarity in most corporate health plans in Hong Kong. Where corporations, mostly multinationals, do offer gym memberships they are usually limited to senior staff. This is despite the fact that employers in Hong Kong are able to deduct the full expense of a corporate gym membership from their profits tax as a staff cost. The vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Physical Fitness Association, Stephen Wong Heung-sang, said the lack of opportunities employers provide their staff to exercise was 'a matter of culture'. 'Employers [in Hong Kong] think of their staff as people who are paid to work, not people they pay to take part in sporting activities,' he said. In the United States, the Workplace Health Improvement Programme is soon expected to be made into a law. By allowing higher tax deductions for health club memberships, legislators hope to pave the way for a reduction in health-care costs later in life. Calls for similar legislation are being made in Britain. Mr Wong said the government should increase awareness among local companies about the benefits of a healthy workforce. 'Larger corporations also have to take the lead and provide these benefits to staff before the rest of Hong Kong follows suit,' he said. Fitness advocates say moderate exercise boosts productivity because healthy employees are more energised, manage their time better and make better decisions. 'A person with enough exercise will feel better psychologically, boosting their productivity,' said Mr Wong. They were also less likely to fall ill, lowering absenteeism and medical costs, he said.