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January 2008 Issue: FeatureCommentaryCurrents SafetyGardenEnergy SolutionsFinest Cooking More

Working On Working Out
Cooperatives Making a Committment to Healthier Employees

By Lisa Rigoni

Marla Berner

Marla Berner leads by example as she takes to the glider. She coordinates and participates in Shelby’s weight and fitness challenges.

We’re living in a junk food nation and obesity is the new epidemic. Fighting this battle of the bulge isn’t easy, but electric co-ops nationwide are attacking this health issue head on. Co-op health and wellness programs help reduce healthcare costs, but more importantly, they can improve employee morale, productivity and longevity.

According to Juli Dennis, Senior Advisor of Clinical Programs for National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), co-ops nationwide are working to provide health and wellness benefits to their employees. She said physical activities and good nutrition are among the wellness topics that are covered. Keying in on both aspects will help in the prevention of heart disease now reported by the American Heart Association to be today’s number one killer in the United States, as well as strokes, diabetes and some cancers.

“We focus more on prevention than ever before,” says Dennis. “And it works! Co-ops are doing things like health screenings, safety evaluations and some are subsidizing various exercise options. Many also provide information on nutrition and health risks such as smoking. And as a result, some co-op employees have discovered health concerns they didn’t know were an issue.”

Uncover Health Issues Through Health Screenings

For example, Shelby Electric Cooperative, Shelbyville, conducts regular health fairs/screenings. “Diane Hensley, Benefits Administrator, coordinates our health fairs, which typically offer employees screenings on their bone density, weight, hearing, glucose, nutritional evaluations, cholesterol/triglycerides, flexibility and have even offered mammogram screenings in the past,” says Kevin Bernson, Shelby Electric’s Vice President of Media and Public Relations. “The health fairs are facilitated by Sarah Busch Hospital staff. One of the things we have noticed is that people can feel and look perfectly healthy, but the tests that are offered at these events sometimes uncover health risks that people weren’t aware they had.”

Marla Berner, DirecTV Customer Service Manager for Shelby’s subsidiary, agrees. “We had one employee one year who took the bone density test and was informed that she had osteoporosis. We also have a weight-loss competition each year that begins in January, and it has helped others address some health risks.”

Jason Nohern, a Bulk Truck Driver for Shelby Energy Company, the cooperative’s propane subsidiary, is a prime example. He lost 34 pounds last year during the three-month competition. “I got into the annual weight-loss competition after one of our health fairs. Some of my numbers came back, and it was a wake-up call. My triglyceride count was really high,” says Nohren.

Your triglyceride count is a number that is linked to the occurrence of coronary artery disease in some people according to reports from the American Heart Association. Elevated triglycerides may be a consequence of other diseases, such as untreated diabetes mellitus, as well.

Nohren says, “Once I got my weight under control, my numbers went down I have twice the energy. I’m addicted to working out and I have changed my eating habits. I cut out fried foods for the most part and eat more fish, tuna, etc. And I eat breakfast, which I never did before. All the changes have made it easier to do my job. I think some of the others, like our linemen, would agree … it’s harder to climb poles and do the things necessary for our jobs if we are carrying extra weight or are not in good physical shape.”

Kevin Bernson

Kevin Bernson presses on ... taking advantage of the weights at Shelby Electric. He says he uses the workout facilities to help him keep his health in check.

Be Physically Active Each Day

Regular physical activity is certainly important for one’s overall health and wellbeing. The problem is just doing it. To make your workout work, include activities that you enjoy and can easily fit into your daily routine — such as walking your dog, working in your garden or riding your bike. Almost any activity can be beneficial.

Being active for 30-60 minutes on most days can help you build strength and fitness, relax and reduce stress, gain more energy and improve your sleep. These benefits all add up to decreasing your risk of heart disease and other conditions, such as colon cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and high blood pressure.

Shelby Electric has taken steps to ensure its employees have the opportunity to include activity in their daily schedules. They set up a fitness room so that employees can get a workout while at the office. Shelby’s main office includes two treadmills, an Elliptical, an Ab Lounger, a stationery bike, weight bench and weights, plus free weights, and equipment has also been set up at the DirecTV office. Employees are encouraged to use the fitness equipment when on breaks or at lunch. And, of course, before and after work are popular times, as well.

Chrissy Grant, Accounting Assistant, says she uses the fitness room at least three times a week, mostly after work, taking advantage of the exercise equipment and the videos. “It’s convenient. Once I get home, I may not have the motivation to get back out if I had to go someplace else. Having everything I need right here eliminates those excuses. I feel healthier and have more energy,” Grant says. “If I do decide to come in on a weekend or something, it’s nice that I can also bring my family. It’s a great perk.”

Bernson says, “I take advantage of the fitness room for health reasons. I used to be able to eat whatever I wanted. It wasn’t a problem. But about five years ago I was diagnosed with Graves’ disease and basically, I don’t have a thyroid anymore. I have to work out a lot and watch what I eat a lot more closely than I did before to keep things regulated. Having the equipment here helps a lot.”

According to Becky Sloan, Receptionist/Cashier, “About one-third of our employees do use the equipment, and more so in the winter. When the weather is warmer a lot of us walk outside, too.” The third of employees who use the workout facilities range in age from 20 to 57 years old. And both men and women are participating.

Dennis says of the 650 national co-ops, about 160 of them participate in some type of fitness or wellness challenge. “A lot of them try and do something fun like a ‘Biggest Loser’ competition. We have also had co-ops calculate the miles of electrical lines they serve and challenge their employees to walk that number of miles within a certain length of time. Some do individual challenges, while others do team efforts.” If Shelby Electric took on that challenge, their employees would have 2,219 miles to conquer!

Berner, Grant and Sloan are three of nine Shelby Electric employees who were involved in a building-to-building “Biggest Loser” challenge in the fall. “We wanted to do something before the holidays hit, so we weighed-in and success was determined by weight-loss percentages.” Berner says. “And we threw in some temptations like they do on the show to keep it fun.” For example, it wasn’t unusual for a box of Twinkies or other goodies to land in the opposing team members’ offices or break rooms.

Eat a Nutritious Diet

When it comes to dieting, the key is to follow the basics:

  • Eat a healthy diet by choosing a variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid fats, added sugars and salt.
  • Control your portions. suggests starting with simple steps you can make easily to begin a healthier lifestyle. Some of those suggestions are:

  • Make half your grains whole
  • Vary your veggies
  • Focus on fruit
  • Eat calcium rich foods
  • Go lean with protein
  • Find your balance between food and physical activity
  • Drink 6 to 8 glasses (8 oz.) of water daily

According to information on eating right not only makes you feel good, it’s important for reducing the risks of heart disease, some cancers, diabetes, stroke and osteoporosis. Healthier eating could actually reduce cancer deaths in the United States by as much as 35 percent.

That’s why Sloan lobbied for healthier snacks to be included in the vending machines at Shelby Electric. “We have found that people like the healthy options. And since starting to workout, we often find ourselves making better choices with our food in general, like having a Subway sandwich loaded with vegetables for lunch, rather than grabbing a burger and fries.”

Dennis said one of the trends she has seen as co-ops try to help their employees make better choices is not only the change in what is available in the snack machines, but also at meetings. “While donuts may still be offered at a breakfast meeting, some co-ops have also started offering a selection of fruit. You would be surprised at how many opt for the apple,” she says. “And statistics show that three-quarters of the chronic diseases in the U.S., such as heart disease and diabetes, can be controlled by a healthier diet and incorporating more activity.”

Be Accountable

Accountability is often cited as one of the most important factors in dieting and exercising. This is evident in seeing successful programs such as Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, TOPS (Taking Off Pounds Successfully) and others. Weight Watchers claims that those who participate in their meetings lose three times more weight than those who go it alone. Sloan and Grant say that they agree that accountability is one of the keys.

“Having the equipment at the office helps with the accountability. Several of us work out together and even challenge one another,” says Grant.

Sloan and Grant, along with Berner and another DirecTV co-worker, Monica Nohern, trained for a half-marathon (13.1 miles) using the fitness facilities provided by Shelby as part of their training grounds. “I finished the half-marathon, which is huge. Now I can run three miles easily. When we started I couldn’t run around the block,” Grant says with a laugh, poking fun at herself. “To think I was able to actually finish a run is a great accomplishment.”

“And I average about a 12-minute mile when I run now,” adds Sloan.

Berner says of her and Nohern, “Something came up that prevented us from going to the run, but we had made a commitment and together did a 14-mile trek on our own – we also walk most days at lunch and track it on a calendar – more accountability. It helps.”

Is it Really That Big of a Deal?

U.S. obesity trends showed that in 2006, only four states had a prevalence of obesity less than 20 percent. Twenty-two states showed that obesity affected equal or greater than 25 percent of their population, and two of these states showed that obesity affected equal to or greater than 30 percent. Illinois was in the 20- to 24-percent ranking. In fact, the United Health Foundation reported that obesity has increased from 11.6 percent of the population in 1990 to more that 25 percent today. More than 55 million Americans are obese and as a result are at significant risk for other diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer.

According to Dennis, NRECA Wellness Program research shows that a well-implemented wellness program promotes health, prevents disease and disability and reduces costs. Employees and their families benefit because they feel better, have more energy and a better understanding of the importance of healthy living. Employers benefit from increased employee productivity and morale, a happier and healthier workforce and lower health care costs. Co-op members benefit because the co-op employees are in a better state of mind to offer quality customer service.

“That’s why we offer incentives to those co-ops involved in the NRECA healthcare plans. We want to encourage and help foster a healthy workforce,” says Dennis.

For Shelby Electric it’s a win-win situation…employees benefit by improving their overall health and the cooperative benefits by receiving discounts that allow them to put money back into the wellness program.

“Management and directors understand that it may cost money, but if your employees are healthier, their attendance will be better, their productivity will be stronger,” says Bernson. “Bottom-line—it just makes sense.”

Mind Over Matter

Often eating right is an issue of mind over matter. Ever heard of stress-induced or emotional eating? When you are down, depressed do you go for the big bag of greasy chips or do you have veggies and dip? How about when you are celebrating? Do you go for the biggest piece of cake with the most frosting, or do you opt for selections off of a fruit platter? Many of us were taught that food is comfort, food is for celebrating, and today we often think food should be fast and convenient.

For many today the normal routine is often grabbing a quick lunch or dinner from the drive-thru, eating in the car or at your desk, or worse yet, sitting in the recliner or on the couch in front of the television. For the hurried, Sara Lopinski, a registered dietician at St. John’s Hospital Center for Living, Springfield, offered a few basic tips for mindful eating (eating with awareness) in their fall guide.

  • If stressed and hurried, take several deep, slow breaths to quiet yourself and prepare your body for digestion.
  • Chew your food 20 to 30 times per bite.
  • Eat with your non-dominant hand (e.g., your left hand if you are right-handed).
  • Eat without the distraction of television, computer or the newspaper.
  • Never eat in the car.
  • Eat while seated.
  • Put the proper food portions on your plate and make the meal last for at least 20 minutes.

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© 2007 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

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