DMU’s well-rounded wellness program goes platinum

Fitness force: Wellness director Joy Schiller shows off DMU’s platinum well workplace award and its wellness staff-Shelby Herrick, Nicole Frangopol and Shannon Kalsem, M.H.A.’03.

Like many, Samina Akbar, Ph.D., had struggled with her weight for years. She’d tried various diets, lost weight and gained it back. In her first year at DMU, the assistant professor of microbiology and immunology felt too busy to exercise.

But Akbar also knew of her parents’ history of high blood pressure. She wanted to be healthy for her husband and their two children. And then she read a heartfelt essay by student Richard Rapp, D.O.’11, about his determination to win his own battle to lose weight.

“Something clicked for me this time,” says Akbar, who now exercises at least five days a week. She reviews notes and prepares lectures while using one of the Wellness Center’s elliptical machines. She’s cut her daily caloric intake to less than 1,000 – according to the American Cancer Society, the average American consumes more than 2,600 – and joined DMU’s Weight Watchers program. She’s shed 40 pounds.

“For the first time in my life, I’ve wanted to exercise,” she says. “I’ve definitely noticed the difference. When I’d come up the stairs, I used to be out of breath. Now I can go up the stairs while talking to people.”

Akbar is among hundreds of DMU employees, students, spouses and alumni who regularly use the University’s 25,000 square-foot Wellness Center, sweat through its fitness classes or intramural sports, and get personal consultations from its four full-time staff.

Employees also can earn money for working out, getting preventive health care and participating in other health-related activities through DMU’s Wellness Pays program; in fiscal year 2009, employees earned nearly $35,900 in these incentives.

For its comprehensive wellness offerings and operating plans, in August DMU became the nation’s first university or college to earn the highest recognition granted by the Wellness Councils of America (WELCOA )

“That gave us a real sense of accomplishment,” says wellness director Joy Schiller, M.S. “With DMU as a health sciences university, it’s imperative we be a role model for other organizations.”

Achieving platinum status was a 20- year process, says Schiller, who became DMU’s first wellness program director in 1989. At the time, the campus workout area was the gym of St. Joseph Academy, the former Catholic girls’ school that the College of Osteopathic Medicine – now DMU – took over in 1972.

“The showers by the gym were constructed for young girls, so they hit at about navel level for some adults,” recalls lanky biochemistry and nutrition Chair David Spreadbury, Ph.D. He was on the committee that recommended Schiller’s hiring. “That makes this recognition all that much sweeter for those of us who lived through it.”

DMU is an Olympian among wellness programs now. In WELCOA ’s seven benchmarks, it scored 179.6 out of 180 possible points. One reason DMU earned platinum status is that it links worksite health promotion objectives with business outcomes. One tool in that effort is the annual comprehensive health questionnaire, or “personal wellness profile” (PWP), offered free to employees. Individual results help each participant see where his/her health behaviors should change; aggregated results, tracked year to year, guide wellness staff in designing programs.

Those results show that the University saves money through better employee health: Fiscal year 2009 was the third consecutive year that health care premiums did not rise for DMU employees. Also that year, the number of employees with just one or no major health risk factors – the “healthiest” category – rose 9.4 percent, to 117 PWP participants.

“The PWP is so important in helping us assess and address employees’ health risk factors,” Schiller says.

Equally important is the positive support of DMU’s wellness staff.

“A huge credit for my success goes to the wellness staff,” Akbar notes. “I have never seen such a great group of non-judgmental people. I owe them big thanks.”

How well is your workplace?
The Wellness Councils of America, which serves more than 3,200 member organizations nationwide, uses seven benchmarks to evaluate the wellness of a workplace:

  • Strong CEO-level leadership and support
  • A cohesive wellness team
  • Data collection to drive health efforts
  • An operating plan that defines what the wellness program expects to accomplish
  • Appropriate health promotion interventions based on collected data
  • A supportive environment
  • Ongoing, consistent evaluation of outcome
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