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April 24, 2002
Wellness Programs: a Worthwhile Investment
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health care costs increase, a rising number of companies are using workplace wellness programs to improve employees' health and reduce medical claims, the Associated Press reports.

These programs generally provide health information, but that's not all. Many also offer free or low-cost services such as medical checkups and weight management and smoking cessation classes. Some include fitness centers or subsidized memberships to local gyms.

One factor in rising health costs is Americans' growing tendency toward obesity. Moreover, said David Hunnicutt, president of the Wellness Councils of America, "the vast majority of Americans spend the vast majority of time at work. And it's sedentary."

A National Center for Health Statistics report released earlier this month said seven in 10 adults don't exercise regularly and nearly four in 10 aren't physically active at all.

Meanwhile, a federal government survey in 2000 found that 56.4 percent of Americans are overweight. Obesity can result in higher health claims and employee absenteeism.

Health experts say it's incumbent on employers to find ways for workers to get exercise and information about their health.

Many companies agree, the AP observes. For example:

- Autoworkers at General Motors Corp. relax and stretch with yoga and Tai Chi classes offered just floors above the assembly lines in Flint, Mich.

- Union Pacific Railroad employees can use a fitness center at even the most remote spots; the company used to have traveling fitness railcars before workers started staying in hotels.

- Chrysler Group offers incentives for its employees to use its programs, giving out "well bucks" that can be redeemed for gym bags, golf balls and other gear. Employees earn the well bucks if they get a health screening, check out a book or video from the company's healthy life library or get a workplace massage.

Companies say wellness programs have proven effective, with reductions in blood pressure, smoking and cholesterol levels.

About 1,000 people participated in CIGNA's weight management program last year, and the average weight loss was 10 to 15 pounds, said Catherine Hawkes, assistant vice president of the insurer's employee health and work-life programs.

Roughly half of companies with more than 750 employees offer a comprehensive employee health promotion program, according to a National Worksite Health Promotion Survey from 1999, the most recent year such a survey was done.

Experts tell the AP that the data needs to be interpreted carefully. For example, a company could send out a health newsletter and say it has a wellness program. Or, it could have a fitness center, but not encourage employees to use it.

To view the Associated Press story, via USA Today, click here.

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