If you’re out and about any weekday around noontime in Norway or in Lewiston, among other towns, you’ll notice business types sporting sneakers and walking with purpose along local sidewalks and parks.

These folks are being encouraged by their employers to get a little exercise during the lunch hour.

It’s not a perk. It’s a move to improve productivity.

On Thursday, Andy Spaulding, director of the Center for Community and Worksite Health at Viridian Health Management in Portland, told an audience in Norway, “It is really true that if we just focused on being more active we could affect mortality rate, save money and improve people’s quality of life.”

We could also reduce illness and increase workplace productivity.

And, most importantly, most of us can improve our general attitude with a little bit of exercise.

Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranked Oxford County the least healthy county in Maine, and employers there are taking the warning seriously by encouraging workers to get more active and be more attentive to what they eat.

It’s too soon to say whether it’s making a difference, but years of scientific research suggest that it will.

Last year, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine published a report that concluded — as thousands of reports already have — that taking an exercise break at work increases workplace productivity and decreases absenteeism. Since these are the goals of any business — in the private sector and in the world of government — it makes sense for employers to embrace this notion to encourage healthy habits.

The Journal’s study was very specific.

According to its report, one group was involved in a work site wellness program that allowed them to reduce work hours by 2.5 hours per week in favor of exercise. The second group worked regular hours without an exercise break. The third group was allowed to reduce work hours and didn’t have to exercise.

Of the three groups, the first one — less work, more exercise — demonstrated significantly increased productivity and “missed fewer days due to illness.”

The same report found that absenteeism accounts for between 29 and 46 percent of all employer health care costs, and presenteeism — when sick employees show up to work — may cost companies up to 74 percent of total health care costs (as slowed, sick workers infect their co-workers).

These are significant numbers that can be reduced with a little attention to exercise and wellness programs.

A study by the American College of Sports Medicine found similar results, but also reports that workers who exercise have a better frame of mind and get along better with their co-workers than those who don’t exercise.

Reducing friction among employees is certain to increase productivity as employees are more willing to cooperate and collaborate with each other.

In Maine, many workplace wellness programs are coordinated with the help of Healthy Maine initiatives, such as Healthy Oxford Hills and Healthy Androscoggin, which are all funded — at least partly — through the Fund for a Healthy Maine.

During the last legislative session, there was a lot of pressure to decrease taxpayer support to the Fund for a Healthy Maine. Opponents argued that decreasing funding would cripple community efforts to reduce smoking, teen drinking and dozens of other important and necessary social programs.

Decreasing funding would also decrease support for businesses that are trying to improve employee health, which simply does not fit with the current administration’s “business friendly” motto.

Here are the facts:

• Health-conscious employees are three times more productive than unhealthy employees;

• Employees who exercise are more alert at work and make 60 percent fewer mistakes than unhealthy employees;

• Employees who regularly exercise take half the number of sick days of employees who never exercise.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, lost productivity costs outstrip direct health care costs by a ratio of 3-1. So, for every dollar an employer spends on health care, that employer spends another $3 on indirect lost productivity.

That’s a pretty strong incentive to keep employees healthy and happy.

It is not a company’s obligation to make workers “happy.”

However, healthy workers are happy workers. And happy workers are more productive, less likely to become ill and less disruptive in the workplace than the disgruntled.

It pays to be nice.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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