Public Workforce

Downsizing Government

State-sponsored wellness programs aim to trim employee waistlines and health costs.
by | October 2003

Livestock scales were too small for the weigh-ins that occurred last January in Iowa. Instead, Lighten Up Iowa participants stepped onto the huge scales found at grain elevators. They were the only ones big enough to accommodate the teams gathered in the state capitol rotunda ("pun intended," says Tim Lane, fitness consultant for the Iowa Department of Public Health) to kick off a five-month weight-loss and physical activity program. When the results were tallied in June, 12,000 state employees and citizens had lost a total of 22 tons.

Concerned not only about the incidence of diseases stemming from obesity among the general population but also about rising health care premiums for their own employees, a growing number of governments are sponsoring wellness and nutrition programs. And rather than simply focusing on weight loss, they emphasize lifestyle changes.

"Moving Across Montana" encourages teams of state employees to track how many miles they walk each day by using a pedometer and reporting their numbers to their team captain. The objective is for the teams to gather enough miles to have trekked across the state in eight weeks. Some 342 teams, consisting of about 3,000 state employees, participated this year.

In some places, the chief executive is the chief exerciser. Last spring, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue invited state workers and legislators to join him in a six-week fitness challenge. Nearly 1,800 people signed up--no small matter for those accustomed to Southern cooking. Cafeterias in state office buildings began offering baked chicken and fish and steamed vegetables in addition to their usual fried fare. All lowfat or low-sugar foods were identified with signs saying "Sonny's Selections."

Delaware has a program called the Lieutenant Governor's Challenge, sponsored by a coalition of six organizations including the University of Delaware, the American Cancer Society and the Division of Public Health. Participants get a logbook to keep track of what they do for 12 weeks. The baseline goal is 30 minutes of activity at least five days a week.

Different activities earn different points in that 30-minute period. Walking gets a participant four points, while racquetball gets 11. "Do what you like to do and track it so it meets a certain standard," says Lieutenant Governor John Carney. Even if they're doing something they don't like to do, such as cutting the grass, shoveling snow or washing the car, they can get points toward a bronze, silver or gold medal.

Carney hopes that by focusing the First State on becoming the "Fit State," he can help create a reduction in health care costs to the state as well as improvement in people's lives. "We talk all the time about the costs of health care going up, treatment of chronic disease," says Carney. "We don't do enough on making people make behavior changes, eat healthily, stop smoking and get physical activity." His campaign has the backing of Governor Ruth Ann Minner, who has diabetes.

Delaware now is working to tailor the program for state employees, although many have been participating since the program began in mid- 2002. Dave Wolanski from the Department of Natural Resources, who exercises on a treadmill and uses a push-mower on his lawn (after giving up his riding mower) to get his points, e-mailed to say "the lieutenant governor's challenge has helped me change my life."

On the other hand, state workers in New Mexico are losing one opportunity to maintain a physical activity regime. Governor Bill Richardson recently revoked a policy instituted in 1974 by then- Governor Jerry Apodaca, the self-proclaimed "first jock governor," who allowed state employees an extra half hour at lunch for exercise. The current administration did a performance review and came up with several suggestions to make government more efficient. The extra half hour got the ax. "There was no consistency between agencies," says Gilbert Gallegos, spokesman for the governor. "A lot of agency heads felt employees were taking advantage of it. They were not using it to exercise but for taking time off. We couldn't justify that to taxpayers."

Carney finds that unsettling because one of the things Delaware fitness coalition partners have talked about is providing scheduling flexibility for state employees to allow them to take time during the day to do something active. "We give people 15-minute breaks to go out and smoke a cigarette," he points out. "What about breaks to get some exercise?"

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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