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Rewarding health

The U's Wellness Program offers rewards both monetary and personal

By Susan Wiese


February 25, 2009

Lisa Nkhata knows how hard it can be to lose weight. More difficult than shedding pounds, though, is the challenge of keeping the weight off, says the 42-year old spouse of Hormel Institute research scientist Katai Nkhata. Lisa Nkhata would know. She has lost 95 pounds. And with the support she is receiving through the University of Minnesota Wellness Program, Nkhata is maintaining her hard-earned size 10.

"I had been obese since I was 10 years old, so I am still amazed when I catch a glimpse of myself in a store window or mirror," says Nkhata.

Nkhata is among the more than 10,000 U of M employees and their family members participating in a comprehensive approach to wellness available through the UPlan Medical Program. The Wellness Program gives a participant a $65 reward when he or she completes an online wellness assessment. Another $65 reward is earned when the participant takes steps to improve his or her health.

Wellness Assessment deadline: April 30

If you (or your UPlan-covered spouse or same-sex domestic partner) have not already done so for 2009, take the wellness assessment by April 30 to earn a $65 wellness reward. The numbers you obtain from preventive health screenings can pinpoint your risks and result in more accurate and complete assessment feedback. The spring semester schedule for walk-in health screenings on the Twin Cities campus can be found at health screenings.

"We are really trying to give our people incentives and tools to help them change and improve their health habits," says Jill Thielen, Wellness Program coordinator. Through the program employees receive reliable information about how to be more active, eat better, or manage stress. They can also receive guidance and encouragement from a personal health coach. "We want employees to realize their full wellness potential, so it is important for us to reward success. This is where the $65 wellness rewards come in. In effect, we are paying people to invest in themselves," Thielen says.

Nkhata's journey to better health began when she enrolled in Weight Watchers. "They taught me a lot about setting goals, eating more nutritious foods, tracking my food intake, incorporating exercise, and so much more," she says.

When winter threatened to interrupt her running routine, she joined a YMCA. Through the University's Fitness Rewards program, Nkhata is receiving a $20-a-month reimbursement of her membership dues when she works out eight times a month--another benefit available to UPlan members. "The Fitness Rewards program makes the Y affordable. I feel I am getting paid to go to there," she says.

Nkhata's husband, Katai, applauds his wife's quest for fitness and better health, and he's taken action, too. His blood cholesterol level has dropped since the Nkhata family adopted his wife's improved nutritional habits. Lisa continues to attend Weight Watchers meetings and regularly talks with her health coach by telephone. "When I hit a plateau, my health coach serves up new strategies for me to try. Just knowing that the coach will be calling keeps me on track. Accountability is so important in losing [weight] and maintaining a healthy weight," she says.

Ralph Paulson, too, is enthusiastic about what he has been able to achieve through the Wellness Program. The 60-year-old delivery service driver for Facilities Management was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 13. Since then he has been giving himself daily shots of insulin. Because diabetes can bring on problems with blood flow and circulation, Paulson has become a vigorous walker. Through exercise, insulin, and proper nutrition, Paulson is keeping his diabetes in check. So far, he has been able to avoid serious complications of the disease, such as nerve damage and vision loss.

"When I begin to lose confidence in my ability to maintain the balancing act that managing diabetes requires, my health coach builds me up. She helps me cope so I maintain a positive attitude," says Paulson.

Ralph and Lisa illustrate the kind of progress toward health and well-being the Wellness Program is striving to achieve for U employees and their partners.

Common health risk factors

Health is based on a number of factors, but aggregate responses to questions in the annual wellness assessment indicated some of the top risk factors:

  • stress
  • excess weight
  • elevated cholesterol
  • poor eating habits
  • lack of preventive exams
  • physical inactivity

An analysis of these risk factors* over the first years of the Wellness Program showed that the University experienced a 9 percent reduction in health risks among participants who have completed the wellness assessment two or more times since 2006. It's evidence that people are taking steps to preserve their health and prevent disease. Should the trend continue, the results could translate into future savings in health care costs--both in terms of what the University spends to pay health care claims and in terms of what an individual must pay out of his or her pocket.

Health Programs manager Karen Chapin says, "Through the Wellness Program, where we can prevent people from becoming sick, we believe we can slow the growth in what it costs to provide health and medical benefits to our employees and their families." In a world where health care costs continue their dramatic ascent, the U's Wellness Program is taking a preventive stand.

The program is already paying off in a meaningful way for people like Lisa Nkhata and Ralph Paulson. Nkhata recalls a time when she could barely race her children from the parking lot to the storefront door. Now she is gearing up to run her first half marathon. Paulson, too, is stepping up his physical activity. After driving for the University for 33 years, he is preparing for a retirement in which he and his wife will take in more of northern Minnesota on foot. They are renewing plans to climb to the top of Eagle Mountain, Minnesota's highest peak, to get a breathtaking view of the North Shore and experience the real rewards of wellness.

*StayWell Health Management, HealthPath® Management Summary, July 10, 2008, page 19