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Keep Fit at Work

Wellness programs foster weight loss, fight disease, boost productivity

One example is Orlando-based Westminster Communities of Florida. The statewide operator of continuing care retirement communities and federally funded housing has offered health risk assessments since 2004, and now makes them available to 2,300 employees at 22 locations statewide.

Of the 1,163 who get health insurance through the employer, more than half took part in the health risk assessment program, and 500 took part in this year's 10-week lifestyle education boot camp. Other initiatives include competitive walking, a breast cancer awareness campaign and programs targeted at diabetes and hypertension.

As a result of such initiatives, Westminster employees haven't seen any increases in their health plan premiums for three years, says Lisa Bloder, Westminster's wellness coordinator. Top performers — those who maintain a blood chemistry within normal range or reduce it from an abnormal range — attend classes, exercise and, when they reach their goals, receive annual lump-sum rewards of up to $1,040.

In 2011, at least 10 attendees averted medical crises while at the boot camp. "We were able to identify them and prevent them," says Bloder, who is a registered nurse. For instance, that meant monitoring someone "whose blood pressure was so high that if it continued, they would have had a stroke or some other catastrophic event."

One-on-one coaching works

Businesses have also found that one-on-one employee coaching by telephone, email and in person also makes an impact. Coaches at Independent Health, a medical insurer based in Amherst, N.Y., help workers manage their blood sugar levels and lifestyle factors that contribute to diabetes and other chronic conditions.

And a four-part workshop, "Beat the Pack," combined with phone coaching and online tools, helps employees quit smoking, says Peggy Davis, director of health promotion.

Among those who benefited from Independent Health's wellness efforts this year is Diane Cannata, 51. "I decided that it was time to take care of me," says Cannata, a systems operational analyst. "I was not healthy."

But it was a five-day fitness camp in June that convinced her that Independent Health was truly invested in her health. She spent those workdays off-site with personal trainers and other campers, exercising, hiking and learning about nutrition.

"I actually got a whole lifestyle change out of it," says Cannata, who won a drawing that led to the chance to go to the camp. "I'm happier, and I'm 65 pounds lighter."

You may also like: Lose weight with your smartphone. >>

Susan Kreimer writes about health and business issues from New York.

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