We’ve all heard that we should be moving more and sitting less, but how do you translate that movement into action and improve the health of the communities and spaces around us? Keynote speaker Laura Putnam knows the answer to these questions, and she’s generously shared some of them with me in this recent interview.
Motion Infusion is a go-to well-being provider that combines movement, well-being and learning to transform organizations, teams and individuals. As CEO and founder, Laura has worked with leaders in over 200 organizations across the nation and around the world to spark company-wide movements of well-being. Her book Workplace Wellness that Works articulates these real-world experiences, born out of evidence-based practices, into a user-friendly framework, one that has been adopted by leading organizations, such as Quicken Loans, Schindler Elevator Corporation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, and the Association of Washington Cities.
Laura’s work has been featured on MSNBC, ABC, FOX News, New York Times, Today Show, USA Today, US News & World Report and Entrepreneur. She serves on leading advisory boards, including the Google Vitality Lab and Everside Strategic Advisory Council, and she has received the American Heart Association’s 2020 Impact Award, as well as the National Wellness Institute’s Circle of Leadership Award.
Jennifer Best: Thank you so much for chatting with me today. Would you tell us a little about yourself and how you got started in the field and as a speaker?
Laura Putnam: When asked about my career path, I tell people that I’m a former urban public high school teacher, competitive gymnast and professional dancer, international community organizer, turned movement-builder in the world of wellness.
My quest to find my career niche has literally spanned the globe. From living and working as a community organizer in West Africa to researching pediatric measles in Mexico City, and from dancing professionally in New York City to teaching history in underserved Bay Area public high schools, the central theme of my career has always been about improving communities through movement. Through Motion Infusion, the company that I launched in 2008, I successfully pulled together all of these different threads to craft a meaningful career for myself, and at the same time, have a meaningful impact on the world around me.
Motion Infusion stems from the “Born to Move, Told to Sit” dilemma that I have grappled with throughout my entire career. Movement has been my salvation and modus operandi throughout my life. As a competitive gymnast, starting as a young child and continuing into college (I was a scholarship member of the Stanford Women’s Gymnastics Team), I grew up “in motion.” That is, until I entered the workforce. One of the first realities that hit me when I began working was just how much the modern-day job keeps us in our seats and robs us of our need to move.
It has been through my own efforts to navigate this struggle (and help others, as well), that I have found my path. Today, my life’s work, as CEO and founder of Motion Infusion, and my role as an author, speaker, workshop facilitator, and consultant, is about unraveling this mismatch between what we’re born to do and what we’re allowed to do in modern-day society. My mojo comes from finding creative ways to help every individual, every team and every organization overcome societal roadblocks to infuse more motion and well-being into everything they do.
JB: What topics do you speak on and why are they important to you?
LP: I speak about well-being, particularly from an “outside-in” perspective. This includes a range of topics such as getting workplace wellness to work, creating cultures of well-being by helping every individual to become their best self by adopting a healthy lifestyle. My topics also address ways to stem the rise in employee burnout by activating managers as key drivers of well-being at work, helping employees unravel the “born to move, told to sit” paradox. One of my most requested topics is around the cross-section of equity and wellness and is about uncovering and addressing the insidious effects of “wellness privilege,” whereby some of us are given greater access to well-being than others.
All of these topics, in one way or another, boil down to the vexing gap between knowing and doing. That is, when it comes to improving our health and well-being, people already know what to do. For starters, eat better, move more, don’t smoke. Who doesn’t know that? You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t. And, yet, less than 3% of Americans do these three “simple” things. Why?
With all of the money, resources, and general obsession with wellness (it’s now the fastest growing industry, there are over 37,000 fitness apps!), we’re not getting any healthier. In fact, we’re getting less well. Even before the pandemic hit, life expectancy went down for the first time in over 100 years. You only need to pick up any newspaper to know that rates of diabetes, obesity, stress, burnout, even suicide, are skyrocketing out of control.
These are the factors that drive me to share my message. What I know, through practice and through intensive research, is that the dime-a-dozen delivery of wellness tips is not enough. If we really want to make a difference, we need to unearth the root causes and then do a better job of addressing these.
JB: What kinds of audiences do you usually speak to? Who do you think resonates the most with your message?
LP: There are four key audiences that I speak to: senior leaders, managers, human resources and wellness professionals, and individuals. I love connecting with each of these groups, but I would say that my message particularly resonates with my fellow boots-on-the-ground HR and wellness professionals. These are the people who are “in the trenches,” like me.
When I work with this group, I see visible signs of relief when I share simple, but often overlooked, strategies to more effectively get workplace wellness to work. These include things like:
- Starting with what’s right, instead of belaboring people with what they’re doing wrong
- “Going stealth” – sneaking well-being into the daily work routine and using more non-wellness language that is more likely to resonate; and
- Showing them how to translate statistics into stories to more effectively get buy-in from decision makers. (I assure them that even though the C-suite may say they want data, well-placed and well-told stories are what will actually move them.)
I show this group how to engage managers, who are the ones who are uniquely positioned within the workplace, to serve as conduits of well-being. My overriding message throughout is to “focus less on the fish and more on the water that surrounds them.”
JB: What is unique about your take on a topic or message that differentiates you from others in the field?
LP: There were two young fish who were swimming, and as they were swimming, they encountered an older fish. The older fish greeted the two younger fish and said, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two younger fish kept swimming. Then, a few minutes later one of the younger fish stopped, turned to the other and asked, “What the hell is water?”
This story is one I share a lot in my presentations to illustrate the cornerstone of my message: let’s focus less on the fish (“inside-out” approach) and focus more on the water that surrounds the fish (“outside-in” approach). Like water, culture is what we “swim” in. While we may not see it (much the way these two fish did not), it shapes our behaviors in ways we might not ever imagine. The logic follows that we are less creatures of habit, and more creatures of culture. Therefore, if the goal is to catalyze the adoption of healthy habits by many, as opposed to just a few, let’s focus more on the water – and less on the fish.
This shift in narrative provides a fresh take on a talked-about topic. “Wow, I hadn’t thought of wellness that way,” is the kind of comment I hear often. Or, “That was thought provoking.” With that changed perspective, comes relief. One participant recently shared, “Your presentation fed my soul.”
People are tired of being told to “be more resilient” (try telling that to someone working in healthcare!) or to “practice more self-care” or to “build the right mindset.” Of course, these are things we all need to do, but it’s so much bigger than that.
Take burnout. Gallup research shows that the precipitous rise in burnout has little to do with the individual and everything to do with the workplace itself. Things like work overload, toxicity tolerated, unrelenting time pressure, and lack of transparency, are the kinds of structural issues that need to be remedied. Yet another mindfulness app or yoga class (as much as I love both!) won’t do much to stand up to these forces.
The message I offer instead is one of a “we’re all in this together” sensibility. I show managers how they can redefine themselves as “multipliers of well-being,” fostering more team-care in lieu of just self-care. I show leaders how they can refashion their organization to become a sanctuary of well-being so that every employee there is healthier and happier because of where they work. I help every individual to reframe their individual choices as community choices that create an outward, positive ripple effect.
JB: Can you please share an example of the impact of one of your presentations on a client or audience member?
LP: “To be honest, I had not really ever thought about incorporating wellness into my leadership style, and now that I’ve been involved with Managers on the Move, I can’t imagine not doing so.”
This is one of my favorite examples of a light bulb moment sparked by a presentation. These “aha’s” are what fuel me – when managers recognize just how much their team is counting on them to lead the way toward better well-being, when they gain a better understanding of how leadership and wellness go hand in hand, and when they get that it’s not about being perfect, it’s about getting started.
By delivering the right mix of data, inspiration and doable actions in my Managers on the Move workshop series, I have been able to activate thousands of managers around the world to Do, Speak and Create:
- Do: Lead by example,
- Speak: Talk about well-being, and
- Create: Devise systems to generate an oasis of well-being within the team.
I’ve witnessed the power of manager-driven movements that have emerged out of these workshops. For example, Greg Morris, VP of HR at Healthstat, a leading onsite clinic provider, shared, “Managers on the Move advanced our company culture by two years.”
JB: What do you think has been your greatest accomplishment or impact?
LP: Two seemingly random occurrences – one an email, the other a party – connected me with a publisher who pursued me to write my first book. This gave me the chance to reach more people than I ever would have otherwise, translating into my greatest accomplishment to date.
In Workplace Wellness that Works, I was able to translate research, lessons learned, and case studies into a user-friendly guide to infusing well-being and vitality into any organization. It has been used widely in both the workplace and in academic settings, and has also made its way onto everyday home bookshelves because of its universal messages. What is most gratifying is when I get the chance to meet people who have used the book to help them launch movements of well-being within their spheres of influence.
JB: What’s next for you in your career journey?
LP: My next book, currently in progress, will be a deep dive into the “Born to Move, Told to Sit” conundrum, something I’ve been both fascinated by and concerned about for a long time. Nearly all of us are moving too little and sitting way too much (on average, 10 hours a day). This all-too-common scenario has only increased during the pandemic, perversely fueling some of the troubling trends, aka “pandemics within the pandemic,” that are now coming to the fore (spike in diabetes and explosion of mental health issues).
So, given all that, why don’t we move? The short answer is because we live in a society that literally mandates us to sit. Think about it: What’s the first thing we teach our kids? “Sit and be still!” What’s the first thing we hear when we come into a home or office? “Have a seat!” How about our neighborhoods? Most are better designed for cars than they are getting us active. Or, consider how much work keeps us in front of computers or how normal it has become to have groceries delivered to our homes.
We need a better understanding of why we’re not moving enough. (Hint: it’s not because we’re “lazy.”) Then, we need a better roadmap forward. That’s exactly what I intend to bring forward in this next book.
I am so impressed by Laura’s energy and her universal approach to improving wellness from the outside in. Improving our physical and mental health continues to be one of the top requested speaking topics in 2022, no doubt a result of the stress of the past few years. For upcoming events this year, if your organization needs to rethink employee wellness, I invite you to learn more about Laura here and check her availability to speak at your next event.