INSIGHT ON HEALTH & WELLNESS – When the boss is buff – Leaders strive to set fitness example to increase wellness, productivity

Posted on Jan 1, 2012 :: Industries
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Did you make a new year’s resolution to get healthier? How’s that going so far?

Would it help to see the boss hitting the treadmill, too?

Bosses have maybe more influence than they realize on company fitness programs, says Tim Pingel, Health and Wellness manager for J.J. Keller & Associates, Inc. in Neenah.

“You can’t complain about rising health care costs and how much money it is on the budget when you yourself are not contributing by doing the best you can and changing your lifestyle,” Pingel says.

Companies such as J.J. Keller, Miron Construction, Kimberly-Clark and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans that have their own fitness centers should especially take note – if employees see the boss using his or her lunch hour working out (as opposed to working straight through lunch), employees then know it’s okay if they work out during lunch, too, Pingel says.

Knowing that company leaders can have such influence, Prevea Health and Western Racquet & Fitness Club in Green Bay have teamed for their third annual Executive Edge competition.

“The whole purpose of this challenge is to encourage that top level to set an example for health and wellness,” says Jennifer Younk, health and wellness sales manager for Prevea Health. “I’ve seen wellness programs fail if the top level is not involved … Employees are really motivated to change their lifestyle habits when their bosses are doing the same.”

So here’s how the program works: Northeastern Wisconsin company leaders are given a health risk assessment and fitness assessment at the beginning of the 12-week challenge, which starts this month, Younk says. Then, with the help of a health coach and a trainer, the executives develop a plan to improve their scores in both categories.

For the duration of the event, the executives receive full membership to Western Racquet & Fitness, and they and their spouses can attend six special events such as nutrition breakfasts, a cooking demo and a wrap-up party where the four winners are announced. Awards are given to men and women for the best overall score and most improved score.

The hope is that executives will motivate their employees by example and possibly bring wellness and health programs back to their own companies when they see their positive results.

Last year’s winner of the top overall men’s score, Cornerstone Business Services President Scott Bushkie, says that during one of the last days of the competition he came in to Western Racquet in the morning and ran his best 10K time ever. Then that evening, he came back and ran his best 5K time ever.

While that’s an accomplishment that may be inspiring to some and exhausting to others, it’s a good example of what can be achieved in a short amount of time. That’s what surprised Bushkie the most about the program – besides how much pain he’d be in at first – how quickly you can improve from where you start, if you stay motivated and consistent, he says.

“The reason I decided to participate was I knew I wanted to get back into better shape for myself, for my family and also to have more energy at work,” Bushkie says. “I found myself just not having energy I did when I was in better shape.”

Bushkie, who participated in sports all through grade school, high school and college (he was a decathlete), says he knew what he needed to do, but between work and kids and family he could always find an excuse not to work out. Executive Edge gave him just that – the edge he needed. Cornerstone held its own weight-loss competition several years ago, but what Bushkie has learned at Executive Edge might change future challenges at his company.

“I think if I were to do it again, I would look at more than just weight loss and more overall wellness,” Bushkie says. “I would also do it for a longer period of time or try and incorporate in true lifestyle changes versus just to win a competition which would last longer and be more beneficial to each of them.”

Other companies such as J.J. Keller and Miller Electric in Appleton offer year-round health and wellness challenges to their employees. In addition to its fitness center, J.J. Keller has an on-site health clinic with a nurse practitioner and also offers special events and challenges, including one to eat more fruits and veggies, Pingel says. During the holidays, the company offered a team weight-loss/maintenance challenge (where the whole team gets on a freight scale).

Miller Electric offers incentive points for medical examinations, screenings and preventive care and it has a full-time on-site nurse and a doctor who visits four hours per week, says Linda Pintar, benefits manager for Miller Electric. Last month, the company transitioned to healthier options in vending machines.

The company also partnered with Anytime Fitness for two weight-loss/body-fat loss challenges in 2010. The 78 participants that finished one of the nine-week programs lost an average of 1.5 pecent of their body weight and 4 percent of their weight, Pintar says. Some of Miller Electric’s senior leadership team participated in these events, too.

“I think all of us, when we know we have to get into better shape, whether losing weight or toning – it’s much more fun to do it with co-workers or friends and family than to set out by yourself,” Pintar says. “The motivating factor of competition or support is always helpful.”

But occasionally companies can run into challenges within the challenges. For example, Pintar says a couple of Miller Electric employees were a bit overly competitive, consuming a dangerously low amount of calories during the challenge. So the company is looking for ways to prevent such unhealthy “cheating,” and plans to address the issue up front during its next weight loss challenge.

Pingel said although J.J. Keller offers a “Biggest Loser”-type competition, the emphasis is on the six-month maintenance program that follows, which helps participants focus on sustainable habits. Executive Edge focuses on goals like dropping body fat percentage and cholesterol count rather than weight loss.

Last year’s overall high score winner in the female division, Kathy Fett, vice president of quality for Prevea Health, was already in great shape (she runs half-marathons) but dropped her waist measurement, maintained her good blood pressure and learned to incorporate strength training and improve eating habits during the program.

“I thought it would be very interesting to know how I could improve my fitness,” Fett says. “I believe in fitness programs to manage stress, which equates to a better home and work environment.”

Bushkie, who like Fett says he is naturally competitive in nature, is ready to defend his title this year, motivated partially by his 67-year-old father, who is undergoing treatment for cancer.

“Business owners sometimes get caught up in their businesses and being successful and making a bunch of cash,” he said. “But at the end of the day you can have all the cash in the world, but if you don’t have your health, what have you got? This helps you to refocus the compass a little bit on what is truly important in life, and to do it in a fun and competitive manner.”