Employers are sick of rising health care costs, but that doesn't mean they are not willing to put a few bucks toward employee-wellness programs.

In 2018, roughly one-fourth of employers surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management provided on-site access to an employee fitness center or subsidies for off-site health club memberships. In a different survey last year, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than half of employers offered a wellness program of some sort.

Those employers are now part of the target audience at Wellbeats, a St. Louis Park-based producer of fitness videos that for years has been selling its content into health clubs and military bases. Employers became a new focus for the company in 2018, when Wellbeats also started dabbling in the competitive retail market where individuals buy access to online fitness classes through a smartphone app.

At a cost that starts at $1 per employee per month, employers can license fitness content through the Wellbeats app, making on-demand classes available to workers for individual use on computers, tablets and smartphones as well as in group sessions at the office.

"We know that consumers are spending a lot of money on virtual on-demand fitness," said Jason Von Bank, chief executive at Wellbeats. "We know that employees want it … yet less than 1 percent of employers offer it."

David Martin, a longtime employee-benefits specialist in the Twin Cities, said he could see employers willing to give virtual fitness a try.

"Through trial and error, you determine which ones become widely adopted," Martin said, "and which ones go by the wayside."

Wellness programs don't necessarily justify themselves in terms of a hard return-on-investment calculation, Martin said, adding that the motivation is more about "value-on-investment" goals such as happier employees. Those softer measures can be particularly important, he added, in a tight labor market.

Wellbeats was founded in 2008 by two fitness-club owners as a way to bring group fitness classes into their gyms through technology. Initially, the company manufactured kiosks where gym users could call up its fitness videos.

Now, Wellbeats is focused on producing fitness and wellness classes that are recorded at its studio in Bloomington, and delivering the content online and through smartphone apps, said Von Bank. The company produces more than 350 fitness classes ranging from Pilates and yoga to spin and strength training. There also are prenatal classes for expectant mothers and sports readiness classes for young athletes.

With corporate customers in mind, Wellbeats has more fully developed a channel called "office breaks," with a short series of exercises such as "lunchtime lunges" that workers can do at their desks.

Wellbeats doesn't release financial information, but the company in 2015 received $2.8 million in funding from venture investors. Beyond its 30 employees, Wellbeats works with 50 to 75 contracted fitness instructors, many of whom are based in the Twin Cities.

"We produce and distribute all our own content," Von Bank said.

Wellbeats still works with many health clubs, but one possible growth area for the company is related to the occasional club closure. Over the years, health club members who get hooked on particular Wellbeats workouts at their gym have reached out to the company asking how they can maintain access to the videos, even after the health club closes.

In response, last year Wellbeats started selling access to fitness videos for individual consumers through its app at a price of $14.99 per month.

"We'll see what sort of traction we get," Von Bank said. "There are a ton of direct-to-consumer fitness apps and video content providers out there."

Among employers, Minneapolis-based Minnesota Gastroenterology is one company that opted last year to give Wellbeats a try.

The company offers group sessions over the lunch hour that feature a Wellbeats class and offers incentives for participation, said Jennifer Ulveling, a human resources generalist with the company. With eight locations and about 800 employees, not all workers at Minnesota Gastroenterology can attend a class at headquarters, so the company likes how employees can call up a Wellbeats class on their own timeline.

"It's easier for all of our employees to use," Ulveling said. "It's been a cheaper option than what we have done in the past. We used to hire someone to come in and do wellness classes over our lunch hour."

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck