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Virginia corporate wellness programs, promoting weightloss

Virginia companies attract national attention for corporate wellness

By Philip Walzer, The Virginian-Pilot, May 27, 2007

"Let your body move to the music," Madonna advised the 14 women in the exercise room. And they obliged, each using an exercise-step as a partner. Up, down, left, right; arms lifting, legs kicking.

"You're doing great," Adriana Arredondo, the step-aerobics instructor, told them.

"Whoo!" the steppers shouted back.

Nearly 95 miles away, trainer Leonard Wingfield led his charges - six women and a man - through a burst of exercises, one minute flexing with jump-rope-size rubber bands, the next performing leg curls on the floor.

With a personality as large as Madonna's, Wingfield interspersed cartoon voices and laughs with his directives.

"March wide," he instructed. "Now softer. No shtomping. Remember, there's people next door."

Both groups of workers were exercising at lunchtime - and they didn't need to leave their buildings. Their employers had set up fitness centers in their workplaces and hired trainers full time. The classes were free, too. Each workplace deals with distraught clients, but that's where the similarity ends. The step class was at the Norfolk office of the USAA insurance company, which employs 1,075 people and sits on 31 acres, including walking trails that overlook Lake Wright.

Wingfield works for the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, a public agency that addresses mental health and substance abuse. Its 400 employees work on three floors of an office building in downtown Richmond. Both employers have attracted national attention for taking an innovative leap in corporate wellness.

The idea, which companies have latched onto as health care costs climb, is that if you invest in improving the health of your employees, you can boost morale and productivity, reduce sick time and save money.

So far this year, other local workplaces have expanded wellness initiatives:

• Farm Fresh last month opened a gym in its corporate headquarters in Virginia Beach.
The facility, available to all Farm Fresh employees, costs $5 a week. If you don't go at all one week, you're not charged.

• Ferguson Enterprises launched a program encouraging daily walking and
participation in an American Heart Association walk in the fall. Next month, Newport News-based Ferguson will start offering free online health risk assessments.

• Virginia Beach began offering employees a financial incentive to go to participating
gyms: If you work out 36 times every six months, you get an additional $100 in your health reimbursement account, to be used for copayments or other medical expenses.

The Richmond Behavioral Health Authority and USAA have gone beyond the norm in their embrace of wellness.

The Richmond agency allows workers to slice half an hour from their eight-hour workday if they use it for exercise. The health authority also pays employees' fees for local races. Wingfield, the trainer, offers free one-on-one sessions. Employees' relatives also may use the gym and classes. USAA offers each employee an annual reimbursement of as much as $350 for health-related costs, such as the purchase of a treadmill, a private gym membership or a Weight Watchers program. If the worker takes the annual health risk assessment, he or she gets an additional $50.

USAA's fitness center has two full-time trainers. The grounds also feature tree-lined running trails, four basketball courts and two tennis courts. Aside from exercise, USAA's cafeteria highlights suggestions on healthy entrees - a recent recommendation: a chicken Caesar wrap with fruit and water, at 520 calories. And it has a clinic staffed by a full-time nurse.

Both workplaces also ban smoking on their grounds and allow employees to use the gym on weekends. USAA last fall won the C. Everett Koop National Health Award from the Health Project, a nonprofit consortium based at Stanford University. The award is named after a former U.S. surgeon general who campaigned against smoking. The Richmond agency's program was featured at the annual conference last year of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Employees at both sites who use the fitness centers say they're drawn by the convenience. The exercise, they say, has improved their moods and decreased their exhaustion. "I don't feel as stressed out or as frustrated," said Susan Hoover, a senior manager who was in Wingfield's class in Richmond. "I used to go home from work and not want to do anything. Now I'm still pretty active when I get home."

Susan Mack, a clinical supervisor, said: "In a mental health organization like this, your biggest asset is your employees. When we take care of ourselves, we're better able to help other people." Mack is among many health success stories at the two workplaces. She lost 30 pounds last year between exercise and Weight Watchers. Starting on the elliptical machine at work, accountant Jeff Harner lost 40 pounds. He's training for the Richmond Marathon. A map of the route hangs in his office.

At USAA, a team of five computer workers this month won a corporatewide "Biggest Loser"-type contest, shedding a collective 151 pounds and each winning $200 in gift cards. Kevin Elliott of Virginia Beach dropped 46 pounds. His secret: Sticking with salads and grilled chicken at lunch and working out on the elliptical machine or treadmill at the USAA fitness center three to five times a week. These days, he's shifted to weight work.

The amenities at both offices haven't necessarily made a majority of the workers workout fiends. About 33 percent of employees use USAA's in-house gym and 30 percent at the Richmond agency.

But executives cite other numbers to prove their programs' worth.

In 2005, the year after the Richmond agency opened its fitness center and set up its wellness plan, it recorded a 37 percent drop in sick-leave costs and a 40 percent drop in prescription-drug costs, said its executive director, Steven Ashby. This year, he said, its health premiums are dropping 2.5 percent, bucking insurance trends.

Nationwide, USAA estimates it has saved $35 million a year in reduced absences. The rate of increase of its insurance premiums has shrunk, equating to a $7.6 million savings last year.

An array of research has documented the costs brought on by unhealthy workers and the dividends of well-constructed wellness programs. Obese workers cost U.S. companies more than $13 billion a year, says the National Business Group on Health. A Duke University study, released last month, found obese Duke workers filed twice as many workers' compensation claims and lost 13 times more workdays from on-the-job injuries.

Wellness experts say it takes three to five years to realize savings, but Cornell University researcher Ron Goetzel estimates companies can get back $2 to $3 for every dollar spent on wellness. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a review two years ago, pegged the gains even higher: $3 to $6.
More offices report engaging in wellness. That doesn't mean they're doing it right.

A Mercer/Marsh survey of firms last year found the most common tool, used by 66 percent, was a health fair or screening. Yet experts say health fairs accomplish little. "Come on, what is it that they're really going to do?" asked Dr. Ann Kulze, a wellness consultant in Charleston, S.C. "You can't have a health fair one day a year and expect people to change the way they live."

Keys to success, experts say, include commitment from the top and regular communication to all workers, not just the least fit. Health risk appraisals also are valuable, not just to pinpoint individual dangers, but to document the results of the wellness program over time. Financial incentives help boost interest. They work best, said Roger Reed, an executive vice president for Gordian Health Solutions in Nashville, Tenn., when they're worth at least $360 a year and lead to a drop in insurance payments.

Locally, incentives take a variety of forms. At Cox Communications, workers who join an on-site Weight Watchers program, lose 10 pounds and keep it off for a year get reimbursed for half the fee. USAA's in-house gym costs $20 a month, but USAA offers tiered discounts. The best deal: If an employee works out 150 times a year, he or she will get a full rebate. "We want you to use the fitness center, not just pay your money and feel good and not go," said the medical director, Dr. Peter Wald.

Its vending machines, Wald said, also offer incentives for healthy drinking: Coke costs $1.05, diet sodas and flavored water, 80 cents. Dr. Margaret Gaglione, who works in obesity management, said office cafeterias should get rid of all unhealthy items, such as hamburgers, chips and non diet sodas. "If you don't have them available, people won't eat them," said Gaglione, medical director of Tidewater Bariatrics in Chesapeake.

Companies should aim to spend at least $100 to $150 per employee to get results, said Goetzel, the Cornell researcher. Wald said USAA does not have an estimate for its total wellness budget but is willing to spend up to $400 per employee, or nearly $9 million nationwide. The Richmond agency, Ashby said, spends $90,000, or $225 per worker. That shouldn't scare off employers that don't want to budget that much, said Barbara Wallace, chief executive of the Virginia Business Coalition on Health, based in Virginia Beach. Some of her suggestions: Buy a treadmill. Start a walking club. Install bright art and lights in stairwells to encourage people to use the stairs instead of elevators.

The Richmond agency's gym is less than 350 square feet, a sliver of USAA's. USAA's fitness center has five elliptical machines and a full array of weights; Richmond has two ellipticals and weights no heavier than 25 pounds. To Wingfield, that matters little. "You don't need a big piece of equipment to get to the goal you're striving for," he said.

Besides, gym regulars say, Wingfield's personality and persistence can be a greater spur to working out than the lure of fancy machines. "He'll come looking for you if you haven't shown up for a few days," said Carolyn Seaman, a clinician at the agency.

• Reach Phil Walzer at (757) 222-3864 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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