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Wellness efforts target school employees

Alongside the growing emphasis on student fitness and nutrition Colorado is seeing efforts to help teachers, principals and other district staff slim down, de-stress and take other steps to prevent health problems before they start.

The Sound Body Sound Mind fitness center at North High School in Denver. <em>Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Miller</em>

The Sound Body Sound Mind fitness center at North High School in Denver. Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Miller

The Poudre School District in Fort Collins is planning to open a free health clinic for employees by next fall. Denver Public Schools recently hired a full-time staff wellness coordinator to help launch a new program that includes a comprehensive staff wellness website, a wellness contest and a series of health–focused seminars. In the Englewood schools, employees have access to free yoga and exercise classes, biometric screenings, flu shots and pedometers to track their daily steps.

All these efforts aim to encourage healthy habits in employees, giving them no- or low-cost fitness options, preventive care and health education opportunities at convenient times and locations. The hope is to create healthier employees, reduce absenteeism and contain health care costs.

“Healthier employees, happier employees, more productive employees. Those things all go hand in hand,” said Tiffany Breeding, the new staff wellness coordinator for DPS.

Worksite wellness has been around for years in corporate settings, but it hasn’t been a priority in many school districts. That’s changed over the last few years in part because an emphasis on improving student health also has raised awareness about the health of the adults.

“You can’t teach a child to be healthy if you’re not doing it yourself,” said Kate Logan, a fifth-grade teacher at Palmer Elementary School in Denver.

Logan started working out with personal trainers at one of the district’s eight “Sound Body Sound Mind” fitness centers last spring. These days, she’s aiming to lose 15 pounds and compete in an Olympic-length triathlon. Logan, who also has participated in a pedometer program and plans to check out the new staff wellness web site, said she thinks the district’s continued focus on employee wellness is a positive step.

“I think oftentimes it’s too easy to get caught up in our work…People can lose sight of themselves,” she said.

Wellness program vary

While many districts now offer at least some staff wellness activities, the size and scope range widely. Some districts provide a few on-site Zumba classes or designate an hour of staff-only time in the high school weight room. Others, often with grant funding or sponsorships from their health insurance companies, provide a wide array of highly-coordinated wellness activities.

Corina Lindley, senior community health manager for Kaiser Permanente, said the company is currently working to create more wellness opportunities for schools. She said many worksite wellness programs have catered to office workers who sit at desks all day, but teachers and other district staff don’t fit that profile and have different needs.

“We’re really pushing more energy into this,” she said.

Kaiser, which insures employees in 83 Colorado districts, has contributed funding for wellness efforts underway in DPS and Englewood. Cigna, which insures some DPS employees, has also provided funding for wellness projects in that district.

Lisa Walvoord, vice president for policy at LiveWell Colorado, said effective school district wellness programs require leadership, strong communication with district staff and ample opportunities for employees to participate. In addition, while a designated champion can often help launch wellness efforts, she said written policies establish long-term expectations.

LiveWell often focuses on small, low-cost wellness measures, such as better signage to encourage employees to use the stairs or healthy party policies for staff.

That said, Walvoord noted that the more comprehensive a wellness program is, the higher the impact.

Aiming high

Ashley Schwader, Poudre’s wellness coordinator, said she believes the planned staff clinic will be one of the first of its kind in the state.

“It’s definitely very innovative and new,” she said.

Schwader said the focus will be on ensuring the district’s 3,500 employees have timely access to health care with no associated costs, including no co-pays.

In the Englewood schools, staff wellness efforts have ramped up in the last couple years, said Dale Lumpa, who serves half-time as the district’s wellness coordinator and half-time as a physical education teacher at Charles Hay World School.

In addition to fitness classes and health screenings, the district has updated its wellness web page, created a staff newsletter and enlisted “super champions” to promote wellness activities and answer employee questions.

“We really want one of the best wellness programs in the country. That’s our goal,” said Lumpa.

Craig Ferguson, principal at Charles Hay, takes on-site yoga classes after school twice a week, and in January got one of the free biometric screenings offered at the school by Kaiser Permanente.

He said the district’s focus on wellness has permeated school culture. For example, instead of convening for happy hour cocktails on a recent Friday evening, school staff went to Jump Street and bounced around on trampolines. Another time, during a break from an all-day training, teachers played kickball outside.

Ferguson said it’s not just the fit and active employees who are getting involved.

“You definitely see teachers taking walks during lunch that may not have been doing that before.”

Ensuring staff participation in wellness activities is an even bigger challenge in the 14,000-employee Denver Public Schools, where “The you revolution” wellness program launched last month.

Breeding , the staff wellness coordinator, said she will be thrilled if 1,000 employees participate in the upcoming three-month wellness challenge, which will award employees points for activities ranging from running a 5K race to visiting their primary care doctors.

By the third year of the program, Breeding hopes to provide a full lineup of activities and see frequent use of the staff wellness portal. There, employees can fill out health screenings, use a nutrition tracking program, log steps tracked by pedometers, accrue points in wellness challenges, look up doctors and keep track of upcoming wellness classes and fitness activities.

At that point, she said she’ll ask, “Are we seeing outcomes and the needle moving on health care costs?”