From Healthy Office Meals to Friendly Competition: 4 Workplace Wellness Lessons from the White House

Posted by on Thursday, May 1st, 2014 with 3 Comments

Leading by example is one of the most frequently cited ways to make employee wellness programs a success: when the boss makes health a personal priority, others will follow. And this tenet is being played out very effectively on a very public stage: the White House.

Beyond policy decisions, like the first lady’s school nutrition programs, the Obamas are famously – some would say infamously – passionate about health and wellness in the White House itself. And the most well-known examples, such as the president’s pickup basketball games and Michelle Obama’s organic vegetable garden (and toned arms), are only the tip of the iceberg. It turns out that President Obama runs a tight ship when it comes to his staff’s health and wellness.

Michelle Obama in the White House garden

The kitchen garden is just one way the Obamas are promoting health and wellness at the White House.
Image source: Flickr user USDAgov

“The culture here has shifted pretty dramatically, in direct ways and indirect ways, based on their leadership,” Sam Kass, the White House senior advisor for nutrition policy, told The Washington Post recently. “I think we really live that.”

So just how do the Obamas promote health and wellness among their staffs — and what lessons can your workplace learn?

Make it acceptable to take time to work out

The president works out daily and encourages his staff to do the same — even offering to pay for sessions with his and Michelle’s own personal trainer, Cornell McClellan, for the most reluctant employees. White House insiders report, “I was working out with Cornell,” is one of the very few acceptable excuses for being late for a meeting. White House staffers also report that they feel supported to take time away from their desks to use the in-house gym — not like they’re ducking out of work.

Helping your employees to feel comfortable taking time out for fitness can be done in your office very easily: verbally support efforts with a friendly, “How was your workout?” when you spot a coworker returning from the gym, and don’t be shy about squeezing in your own gym trips. You might even turn an empty conference room into a makeshift yoga studio once a week, and offer free classes for employees as a mid-morning break.

yoga at the office

Try to incorporate exercise into the daily routine.
Image source: Flickr user enfad

Practice accountability 

Not only does President Obama make it acceptable to take time for workouts; he follows up when his employees aren’t doing just that. McClellan, who relocated to D.C. part-time from Chicago to keep working with his most famous clients, lets him know when staffers have been skipping out on their workouts. And the president doesn’t let it slide: Michael Strautmanis, a deputy assistant in the White House, recounted to The New York Times that, on one occasion, the president followed him after a meeting and asked why his trainer reported Strautmanis hadn’t been to the gym. The boss’s accountability worked. Strautmanis has since changed his diet, meets with McClellan twice a week, and has lost 20 pounds.

While you certainly don’t want to badger employees, accountability is key to successful fitness programs. Just like you would follow up with missed deadlines or unsatisfactory work, if an employee commits to a wellness plan and fails to follow through, ask them why – and how you can help support their goals.

bowl of apples

The Obamas keep bowls of apples in their offices for healthy meeting snacks.
Image source: Flickr user Alex Tian

Keep office meals healthy

The Obamas have changed the White House menu, and not just for their daily family dinners. Vending machines serve healthier options, and former candy bowls are now full of apples. The White House Mess – a Navy-run kitchen and dining room where most senior staff members eat lunch during the week – offers a daily vegetarian option and a “lite menu” with healthier options and calorie counts on the menu.

In your office, this is incredibly easy to implement! Without doing away with treats entirely, you can focus on ordering healthier takeout for working business lunches, swapping fruit for cookies in catered box lunches, and always having a vegetarian option available – or observing Meatless Monday by foregoing meat altogether one day a week. Treating your staff to office meals is a great way to communicate appreciation for employees’ hard work, but keep in mind that celebrating doesn’t have to equal indulgence.

running team

Promote healthy competition through forming office fitness teams.
Image source: Flickr user Ella Baker Center

Take advantage of intra-office competition

At the White House, different administrative departments developed teams that competed against each other in a weekly tally that earned points for 30-minute increments of exercise performed daily (the Washington Post article linked above clearly delighted in the team names: “Runnin’ Like Amtrak,” from the vice president’s office and “Team Engage (Our Core),” from the Office of Public Engagement). Politicians and their aides are notoriously competitive, so the strategy makes sense. The ubiquitous personal trainer, McClellan, also cites competition among workout buddies as one of his strategies to get more out of his clients during sessions.

So follow McClellan’s lead: promote healthy competition, in a very literal sense. Forming office teams and squaring off each week (accounting versus IT, perhaps?) can help team members keep each other accountable, and provide added motivation for those who need it. Prizes don’t have to be lavish to be effective, but at the end of each month, you could award a Friday afternoon off or a catered healthy meal to the team with the most victories.

However you choose to promote workplace wellness in your office — and regardless of your political leanings — the outcome will be the same: healthier workers are happier and more productive. So take a step in the right direction, and start planning your employee wellness makeover today! Start by swapping in some extra vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to your lunch orders: the food delivery experts at can help you find just the right menu for your office meals.

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3 responses to “From Healthy Office Meals to Friendly Competition: 4 Workplace Wellness Lessons from the White House”

  1. Will McTeague says:

    My office doesn’t provide much food, but I’d say the most important aspect is definitely encouraging healthy behavior. I work out at lunch, and it’s hard to get back in an hour and get a decent workout in. Instead of glaring at me, they should be happy that I’m not gorging myself at the buffet! I also have never figured out why people only bring in donuts or cake to celebrate an event at work. It’s almost an insult to bring something healthy. What’s wrong with us?!

  2. Skye says:

    This article has a lot of good points. It’s awesome to see some of our nations leaders get involved in the betterment of the healthiness of their employees and their country. We have something similar to this in our office. Our menu has a lot of healthy things, and it’s really cool. The main problem is, far too many companies don’t care about their employees these days. It’s sad to see and hear about. hopefully “leading by example” can get other companies to start caring about their employees instead of their bottom line. That would be amazing step in the right direction for the US.

  3. Dustin says:

    It’s refreshing to see the push towards a healthier lifestyle, and I’m glad to see it being used effectively by the White House. It obviously works there, and wouldn’t be hard to implement in an office, or even by starting at home. It just takes a few small changes to get the ball rolling, and once it starts rolling, it gets contagious and everyone is eating healthier and living happier. That’s the kinda world I want to live in! Lean and Green! Thanks for the insight!