A Healthy Bottom Line America on the Move Helps Companies Encourage Fit Employees

November 20, 2006 - Employees at Restoration Services Inc. are more likely to reach for a pedometer than a telephone when they need to speak with co-workers.

"Nobody is supposed to call anybody; we all walk," said Staci Ferguson, president of the Oak Ridge environmental restoration business.

The walk-instead-of-call concept is one way the 9-year-old company has implemented America on the Move in Tennessee, a program run out of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee that encourages a healthy, preventive approach to weight management.

The statewide program, which launched in March 2004 with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is an affiliate of the national America on the Move initiative and operates on corporate sponsorships and donations, according to Executive Director Dr. Michael Zemel.

RSI began participating in the program, which focuses on increasing physical activity and making wiser food choices, about a year ago, Ferguson said.

"If people are healthy, they're happier," Ferguson said. "If they're healthy, they're able to work. Whenever you're fit, you feel a lot better."

When the company signed up to work with AOMT, it handed out pedometers to interested employees - about 30 percent of the roughly 100 co-workers - and gave everyone a way to track their progress online, Ferguson said.

"It makes people more aware of what they're doing and keeps them aware of it," she said. "You can actually chart your progress and see it; that helps a lot."

Mirtha Martin, an RSI environmental scientist who participates in the program, admits she was one to phone co-workers.

"It was easier than e-mailing," she said. "But when I had the pedometer on in the beginning, I was very aware of how every step counts."

The company also began hosting a daily morning stretching routine, providing healthy snacks, paying for monthly gym memberships and hosting AOMT seminars like one in October about nutrition education.

"I think it says a lot when a company can do something for you," Martin said.

Zemel said 17,000 Tennesseans have participated in the program.

"We didn't become a fat country because somebody all of a sudden started eating fast food, or any type of food, or sat down in front of computers and stopped walking," he said. "We became a fat country very slowly through multiple small changes."

So AOMT takes the same approach.

"The hallmark of our program is small changes," Zemel explained. "We encourage lifestyle enhancement, rather than lifestyle replacement."

The program, for instance, advocates picking a parking spot a little farther from your destination or taking the stairs. Likewise, Zemel said the program encourages people to eat smarter.

"We might ask you, when you get a burger and fries, to order the medium fries instead of the large," he said.

Zemel said obesity is the second leading cause of death in the United States and consumes 10 percent of the national health-care budget.

"That leads to increased absenteeism at work and higher health insurance premiums," he said. "Every business has a vested interest in trying to bring this under control. We think every corporation has a role to play in addressing the problem. We're here to help them find that goal without hurting their bottom line."

Company costs for implementing the program, which includes monitoring and on-site support through interactive health education and tips on how to modify a corporate culture to embrace a healthier lifestyle, depend on the number of employees.

"People want to be given permission to believe these little steps are legitimate," Zemel said. "They're more than willing to do them if they understand that they work. We're here to tell them they do and to give them that support."