By Betty Hintch
Residents in northeastern Ohio are finding new ways to get fit―from dogsledding and basketball to hiking and dodge ball―thanks to a five-month challenge called B Fit 4 Life. At the center of all this activity is a health system. Three years ago, the 17-facility Lake Health collaborated with community partners to launch B Fit 4 Life, which is designed to improve the health of area residents, with a specific focus on reducing obesity.
The community health initiative is also good business. Through the five-month challenge, which is open to local employers and their employees, Lake Health is building goodwill and creating a downstream source of patients. Lake Health leaders believe that a positive experience with B Fit 4 Life will encourage local residents to make the health system their provider of choice, whether through occupational health services, imaging, or other hospital services.
Approximately 16 local businesses and government entities―including school districts, colleges, and corporations―participate in B Fit 4 Life. Over the past three years, that has translated into approximately 2,100 local residents competing in a variety of fitness events. One event, the Lake Health Half Marathon and 5K Run/Walk attracted more than 1,000 people, some of whom were not enrolled in the challenge. "That kind of involvement raises Lake Health's image as an organization that cares about the community. We expect that goodwill to benefit us," says Sharon Minjares, director, Lake Health Wellness Institute.
In addition, the program's emphasis on developing a culture of fitness in the community aims to lower healthcare costs for local employers, making the community an attractive place for businesses to set roots. "Healthier employees create a more business-friendly environment because healthcare costs and absenteeism are lower," says Gary Robinson, vice president, Lake Health community affairs. "Businesses in this area-like in many parts of the country-have been hit with rising health insurance premiums of 17 to 20 percent annually, so trends like having a more fit labor pool point to reducing those costs and are a competitive advantage to our region."
Once an employer decides to participate in B Fit 4 Life, workers sign up for the challenge. They are assigned a team captain who inspires the group during the five-month program. Prior to the start of the program in January, employees receive basic health assessments to detect any health conditions that could limit their participation. Then, between January and May, each employer group of 20 employees earns points by participating in fitness activities that range from walking and Zumba® dance classes to dog sledding, kick boxing, and cross-country skiing. Strong teamwork and a solid support network foster a sense of camaraderie and maintain motivation among participants. Family members are also encouraged to participate, widening the reach of the program and supporting employees who are involved in B Fit 4 Life.
Participants pay a $20 fee, but in some cases, their employers cover that to encourage membership. Linda Chandler, regional health services manager for Avery Dennison FRNA, an employer involved in the program, says the minimal fee is far outweighed by the valuable access to fitness resources, including clinicians, personal trainers, and recreation specialists, that participants receive.
B Fit 4 Life is designed to be appealing to people who do not regularly participate in athletics or exercise. "The program challenges people to get out of their comfort zones and try new things. They're pleasantly surprised that kayaking isn't as scary as it looks, and they look forward to venturing out again," says Chandler. "Unlike most corporate challenges that are a single-day event that attract mainly the most athletic employees, B Fit 4 Life is a five-month odyssey that encourages people at all fitness levels to participate."
Before launching B Fit 4 Life, Lake Health worked with a business development company to identify appropriate partners and develop a fitness program that reflects the needs and culture of the local community.
To put on the annual five-month fitness challenge, Lake Health partners with the local park district, the Lake County YMCA, and the Lake County General Health District. Each partner contributes to a different component of the B Fit 4 Life program. Lake Health coordinates the activities, while Metroparks and the YMCA provide facilities and instruction for sporting events, such as kayaking, snowshoeing, and skiing. The participating employers, including schools, also offer gymnasiums and other facilities to hold meetings and events.
Maintaining participant interest in any fitness or wellness program requires that program coordinators be flexible and creative. Lake Health has been able to sustain enthusiasm and ensure high-quality programming with these actions:
Adjusting fitness activities. "We found that interest dies off at the end of the five-month program. As spring approaches, participants have other options to be outdoors," says Beth Horvath, health and wellness director, Lake County YMCA. As a result, the B Fit 4 Life team has learned to offer new and unique fitness activities as the weather warms to encourage continued participation.
Preparing for weather changes. Because many B Fit 4 Life activities are held outdoors, program partners have learned to respond quickly and creatively to unexpected weather patterns. "Our biggest challenge in 2012 was that we had very little snow," says Minjares. That required YMCA and Lake Metroparks coordinators to develop alternative activities that didn't require snow. For example, dog sledding events were transformed into hiking activities.
Managing class and event sizes. Another challenge is managing the sheer number of people at each fitness event. For example, program leaders and coaches may be called on to hold an hour-long class for 70 people on how to kayak or snowshoe. Teaching methods and the number of trainers are important considerations. On several occasions, Lake Health worked with the Metroparks and the YMCA to accommodate an influx of participants. In those instances, Metroparks and the YMCA added additional event times and dates, while Lake Health provided support staff to help check participants into the events.
The main health goal of B Fit 4 Life is to reduce obesity rates, along with Type 2 diabetes and other diseases associated with obesity. Thirty percent of Ohioans are currently obese, and this rate is projected to climb to almost 60 percent by 2030, according to a recent survey by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Lake Health System believes that its $10,000 annual investment in the B Fit 4 Life program, plus the related staff time, is worth the payback in a leaner, healthier community.
There are more than 20 programs in Ohio's Lake County addressing obesity rates, so Lake Health leaders can't tie all improvements in fitness levels among residents to the B Fit 4 Life program. "However, our goals are the same as the other fitness programs and we are making progress," says Robinson. "As a community, we have one common goal; to raise fitness within our county. We've maintained our ranking on the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute's County Health Rankings & Roadmaps survey as the 13th healthiest county out of 88 in the state. With programs like B Fit 4 Life, we hope to perform even better on rankings in future years," Robinson notes.
Betty Hintch is editor for HFMA's newsletters and forums.
Interviewed for this article (in order of appearance):
Sharon Minjares is director, Lake Health Wellness Institute, Concord Township, Ohio (Sharon.email@example.com).
Gary Robinson is vice president of Lake Health Community Affairs, Lake Health, Concord Township, Ohio (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Linda E. Chandler, RN, COHN, is regional health services manager, Avery Dennison, FRNA, Perry, Ohio (email@example.com).
Beth Horvath is health and wellness director, Lake County YMCA (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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