When Jose Kaz joined Rackspace as a Linux Support System Engineer for the Latin America team roughly two years ago, he carried 302 pounds on his 5’6” frame.
Not surprisingly, his doctor warned him last August that he needed to reduce his blood sugar, which was dangerously high.
As he worked the second shift late into the evenings, Kaz, 37, noticed colleagues were using the onsite gym at all hours.
“I saw them training and I thought to myself, ‘What’s your excuse?’”
Kaz emailed Daniel Bahr, who manages the Rackspace Exercise Center, better known as the REC, seeking information on a Muscle Pump class. He got just a little more than he was asking for.
“Daniel responded, ‘When are you going to start?’” Kaz said. “And because of that, I started the following week.”
He now trains on a regular schedule, lifting weights with his wife every day. He’s already lost 65 pounds — so far. A few months ago, he moved to the second shift support team for Rackspace private cloud.
The regular workouts have changed much more than his weight. His blood sugar has dropped, as has his high blood pressure.
“I feel more energy during the day,” he says. “My shift ends at 1 a.m. and I’m still awake with plenty of energy. I feel very happy.”
Kaz chalks up his success in part to Rackspace’s culture of support, of treating colleagues like friends and family.
“From Daniel, from Amanda (Nichols, a group exercise instructor who teaches Muscle Pump), from everyone at the REC; they’re always telling me, ‘Good job!’ and ‘You look great!’” says Kaz. It’s an extension, he continues, “of the way Rackspace sees each one of us as members of a family.”
The REC is a cornerstone of Rackspace’s comprehensive health and wellness program, which also includes free annual screenings and flu shots, walking challenges, educational workshops and a smoking cessation program.
Fit Friendly Worksite
“We believe healthy Rackers are more engaged,” says Sharon Noneman, director of global benefits and wellness. “It’s the flip side of the tacos and sodas many people love. We want to provide a balance.”
Earlier this year, the American Heart Association recognized Rackspace as a Gold level Fit Friendly Worksite, one of just 51 employers in San Antonio to earn the distinction.
“Rackspace has really added health into the culture,” says the AHA’s Caitlin Martone Cox. “It’s very innovative in a lot of ways, and there’s definitely a passion for it among leaders like Daniel and Sharon. The Fit-Friendly Worksite award is not only a great way to be recognized, but also to receive the tools, resources and feedback to get to the next level.”
The AHA’s overarching impact goal is to reduce the number of deaths from cardiovascular diseases, which include diabetes, stroke and hypertension, by 20 percent, while also increasing the health of all Americans by 20 percent by the year 2020.
In addition to those diseases cumulatively being the number one killer in America, claiming more lives than all forms of cancer combined, the direct and indirect costs total more than $316 billion annually.
Obesity alone costs American businesses almost $13 billion a year in medical expenses, and more than $225 million in health-related productivity losses. In San Antonio, 65 percent of the population is overweight or obese, and 23 percent report no physical activity in the past month. Rackspace stats mirror those: 68 percent of Rackers are overweight or obese, according to a company-wide health screening survey completed last fall.
Given those eye-popping numbers, and the reality that most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work, the AHA understands that partnering with employers like Rackspace can move the needle. Studies suggest implementing a worksite physical activity program and promoting a culture of activity helps increase productivity, reduce absenteeism, lowers turnover and reduces healthcare costs.
Cox said she hopes Rackspace will become an example not just for other San Antonio companies, but perhaps even more importantly, other tech companies.
After all, the tech sector is pretty infamous for its sedentary, free food and soda culture. Think of Google’s well-appointed kitchens, with bins of cereal and banks of soda dispensers, or HubSpot’s “wall of candy.” The free (junk) food culture is so ubiquitous it’s lampooned in HBO’s sendup of the industry, Silicon Valley.
Free soda, free gym
While the fueling stations located around Rackspace’s 750,000 square foot headquarters in San Antonio often include bowls of apples and pears, they all feature soda dispensers as well. Indeed, “free soda” is one of the top “pros” of working at Rackspace, according to reviews by current and former Rackers on Glassdoor.com.
But without anything to balance it out, all that free soda comes at a price, one that’s exacerbated by a sedentary workday.
Rackspace is self-insured, explains Chief Financial Officer Karl Pichler, “and our health care costs per Racker are growing at 10 percent per year, pretty much every year.”
In an effort to control those costs, Pichler was more than willing to nix the free soda, “but no regime would survive that,” he joked. Investing in a free, onsite gym was obviously more expensive, but Pichler believed it would be worth it.
“Building a gym was not a slam dunk,” he said. “It costs a lot of money to build and operate, and is often labeled as an unnecessary expense. But to me, it wasn’t about the money. It’s about making it easier for Rackers to live a healthy life, and it’s part of what makes me proud to be Racker — we do the right thing for our customers, our communities and our Rackers.”
Meanwhile, Bahr, who started at Rackspace a decade ago in sales, was helping build a grassroots fitness culture at the company. Outside his regular duties, the self-described fitness junkie started a CrossFit group in 2011, then added a handful of boot camps — RaxFit, he called them. Rackers would meet at the top of the parking structure at the company’s then-headquarters to work out together.
He later secured what would become known as the Yard, a former maintenance and storage area: “We had two pull up bars welded for the space, and we thought, ‘This is it, this is all we need!’”
As the company grew, so did the number of Rackers taking advantage of the impromptu fitness program. Bahr and his colleagues held fundraisers to buy more equipment. That growing interest prompted Pichler and others to consider building a proper gym within the Castle, as the former indoor mall Rackspace bought and redeveloped for its headquarters is known.
A gym “is something that isn’t strictly necessary from a corporate perspective,” says Pichler. “It’s usually the last consideration in allocation, and the first thing to be cut. But I was very supportive. I said, ‘Let’s build it. We know people will use it.’”
Two and a half years ago, the REC was completed. At 10,000 square feet, it features areas dedicated to strength, power, cardio and mobility, plus two group exercise rooms that host yoga, Pilates, circuit training and other classes — all free.
Rackers can hire a personal trainer, book a massage or undergo acupuncture, all onsite, at a discount. Two full time Airrosti practitioners are also available to treat injuries.
“I knew if we built it, it would be good,” said Bahr, who fulfilled a career goal when he took the helm and became the REC’s chief encouragement officer.
Today, the REC is fully embedded in Rackspace culture. More than 500 Rackers swipe through the doors every day. Each week, they take part in more than 70 personal training sessions and over 60 massage sessions — a great balance between exercise and relaxation.
“Having Rackspace place such an emphasis on health and wellness can really set a standard other tech companies can follow,” the AHA’s Cox says, “so we really want to follow Rackspace’s progress and help increase its success.”
Noneman says the REC is definitely a great perk to share when recruiting new talent, and she’s looking forward to deepening the company’s relationship with the AHA to keep spreading the message among Rackers, as well as the larger community, that wellness is an attainable goal.
She credits Bahr’s infectious enthusiasm, and his ability to meet Rackers where they are, as a key ingredient in the company’s health and wellness success.
“He’s been the Racker sitting at the desk,” she said. “He knows the pressures of the work, and he relates to all kinds of Rackers.”
Among those who’ve used the REC as a springboard to a healthier life is David Blount, an enterprise support engineer who arrived at Rackspace weighing 260 pounds. He added to that once he got here, thanks to all the free food.
Blount says he “dabbled” at the REC when he first got here, but it took his doctor to really wake the father of two up. “He told me, ‘you’re going to die soon.’”
Blount started going to the gym again, which was difficult, given his size. He also started paying attention to what he put in his mouth. As the weight finally began dropping off, he joined a Rack basketball team, which he loved enough to stick with.
“It was hard, but it was also really fun. I pushed myself,” he says. “I still go to the gym every now and then,” he says, “but (playing basketball and eating well) has just become part of my lifestyle.”
To date he’s dropped 101 pounds.
Not every story is so vivid. For Rackers like Meredith Dunn, a senior equity accountant, fitness is an everyday part of life — and a way to build camaraderie (and stamina!) on her team.
Trainer Adrian Flores’ No Limits circuit class “is my favorite part of the day,” she says. “It takes me away from accounting, it’s a relief from stress and it gets my adrenaline pumping.”
She encourages her accounting teammates to join her. “I do recommend it — not just the class, but just getting to the REC or going for a walk — not just for the fitness, but for the emotional benefits, too.”
That’s part of Bahr’s strategy, too. “People ask me, ‘What should I do?’ and I say, ‘What do you like?’ It’s about finding something you can get passionate about, like a basketball team or a class you really love. We don’t want to force fitness on anyone, but we’re here when they’re ready.”
CFO Pichler is another regular at the REC. He’s hired Jason Wright, another personal trainer, to help keep him accountable with his nutrition and his exercise.
“He’s been awesome for me,” Pichler said.
And having the REC available to Rackers?
He gets a glint in his eye. “It’s the second best thing after not canceling the soda.”