A healthy work environment

February 18, 2012    

Original Article:  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By Helena Oliviero

Patti Nyberg cheers on longtime co-worker Lanette Hatfield in a room normally reserved for no-nonsense business meetings.

She likes what she sees — determination, high-energy and focus.

But Nyberg and Hatfield aren’t working together. They are working out at work.

Nyberg and Hatfield use a Crawford & Co. room typically reserved for town-hall style meetings, training classes and industry updates. For their class, it quickly morphs into a fitness zone.

The dry erase board is blank; tables and chairs pushed aside. Ten-pound red balls, jump ropes and orange cones take their place.

New programs like this one are popping up across metro Atlanta, a growing trend of blending work and fitness. From new, state-of-the-art gyms to programs inspired by NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” employers are stepping up their efforts to help busy workers exercise and eat right. The goal is happier, healthier and ultimately more productive employees, as well as lower health care costs.

At Crawford & Co., an insurance management company based in Atlanta, about a dozen employees — including Nyberg and Hatfield — use their lunch hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays to get an intense circuit-training workout that mixes cardio and weight training.

“This takes out all of the excuses. I don’t even need to take the elevator. I just walk a few steps away from my desk,” Nyberg, 60, said after doing more than a dozen push ups.

What’s good for Nyberg is also good for Crawford’s bottom line. Concerned about soaring health care costs, many companies see fitness as a way to control costs.

And while wellness programs cost money, several studies suggest investing on preventative measures can save money in the long-run.

“Every year we labor over the increases of health care costs for employees and what we can include, and what we can’t,” said Jim Geiger, CEO of Cbeyond in Atlanta. “One day, I heard a politician say something that made more sense than anything else I had heard: he said we don’t have a health care problem. We have a ‘health’ problem.”

It inspired Geiger to build a state-of-the-art gymnasium at Cbeyond’s Atlanta headquarters, home to about 1,000 employees. It’s free, offers several classes every day and just over 40 percent of employees use the facility, including Geiger himself. Employees call it the “Jimnasium.”

Team effort
Once a week, Debra Lowder gets on a scale and sends her weight to the human resources department.

Lowder, who works at the Metro Atlanta American Heart Association, joined her office’s Biggest Loser challenge. She’s lost 11 pounds already. And she’s the captain of her group.

Her team named themselves “30067,” a play off of the company’s address. Her team is currently in the lead with 44 pounds shed. (Only HR receives a participant’s actual weight. Among themselves, employees share only the number of pounds gained or lost, using the honor system.)

“If you cheat, you aren’t just cheating yourself, you are cheating the team,” said Lowder who is 33.

Besides the weight loss, the staff is changing the dynamic of the workplace. Known for ordering out, staff are now bringing healthy lunches to work. They are holding “walking” meetings. Candy bowls are being replaced by fruit bowls.

Each member of the winning team will receive a $50 retail gift card. The individual named the “Biggest Loser” gets the grand prize — yet to be announced.

For Lowder, she’s already feeling success.

“Before I started this, I had put on 10 pounds very quickly. It was the holidays and stress and all of a sudden, my pants were tight. I wasn’t losing weight. I was gaining it,” said Lowder. “But this goes to show, you get a group together, make it fun and you add in a little competition, and you can really make some changes.”

Investment pays off
A growing body of research suggests wellness programs also work to reduce health care costs.

A 2008 study by Highmark Inc., a Pittsburgh-based health insurer, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, showed employers can save $1.65 for every dollar spent on wellness programs that are comprehensive. Such programs include not only fitness centers and stress management but plans to help employees manage chronic health conditions such as diabetes.

A 2010 report published in the Harvard Business Review found cardiac rehabilitation and exercise training for high risk employees led to dramatic declines in medical claim costs. In fact, researchers estimated for every dollar invested in intervention yielded $6 in health care savings.

At Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the hospital is already seeing results from a wide range of health and fitness programs. The hospital offers everything from health screenings to race discounts to new “stairgyms,” which offer employees a way to work out while climbing stairs. The stairgym has six floors and is decorated with flower scenes, a forest with dancing leaves, a rocky mountain side with snowflakes and a mountain peek on the sixth floor.

Of those employees participating in the annual biometric screenings, the percentage of employees with healthy cholesterol increased to 73 percent in 2011, up from 50 percent in 2008. The percentage of participating employees with a healthy BMI has risen to 43 percent, up from 34 percent.

Programs catching on
The data also shows that the corporate fitness craze is gaining momentum.

In 2011, 48 percent of companies offered weight management programs, up from 42 percent in 2009, according to Compdata Surveys, a leading compensation and benefits survey data provider. Last year, 47 percent of companies were offering annual physicals, up from 41 percent in 2009. On-site health clinics, flu shots, biometric screenings, and smoking cessation programs have also gone up during recent years, according to Compdata.

Here in Atlanta, Pam Leinmiller, a local fitness instructor, recently became one of the first to be certified as a “Biggest Loser Pro” through the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America. She’s decided to start her Biggest Loser program at corporate gyms.

“The idea is let’s bring this to corporate America,” said Leinmiller who now leads two Biggest Loser programs at metro Atlanta corporate gyms. “We bring it to you. And there’s something about a group dynamic that keeps you accountable and really works.”

Leinmiller said her clients include those with modest goals of losing 10 to 20 pounds, to those hoping to lose closer to 100 pounds.

Unlike the TV show, where participants shed clothes and have their weight made public, losing weight in a work setting requires keeping some things private, she said.

“You have to be sensitive, with these people working together. They may not want everyone knowing their weight,” said Leinmiller.

Success story
Back at Crawford & Co.’s headquarters, home to about 500 employees, Nyberg beams over her progress. When she first started the program in July, she told the boot camp instructor she needed the “elderly” program, and she wasn’t entirely joking.

Andre Short of Go Hard Bootcamp refused to let Nyberg off the hook. Instead, he told her to take it slow, do what she could.

“When I first started, he had to physically lift me to do one sit up,” said Nyberg.

She can now do more than 100 sit ups — and push ups — during a one hour class.

Her stamina has improved, her energy is better. Her clothes are looser.

The twice weekly boot camp class started as a response to a 2010 company survey in which many employees said they would like an on-site fitness class.

“Once you are home, it’s hard to pull yourself out for a rigorous workout,” said Nyberg. “This class gives me a workout from head to toe.”

“This is so utterly convenient,” added Hatfield.

Employees get a group rate for the boot camp — $75 a month. Hatfield and Nyberg have the amount deducted by payroll — so they don’t even think about the cost.

Sometimes the fitness instructor leads a jog down the hallways. But on this recent Tuesday afternoon, employees worked up a sweat without leaving the conference room.

After the class, Nyberg freshens up and returns to her desk. “I feel great,” she says.

Original Article:  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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