Monday, July 15, 2013

Wellness Becoming a Priority at UVI

It’s a few minutes past 1 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and three UVI employees are working out at the UVI Wellness Center, a ...
It’s a few minutes past 1 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and three UVI employees are working out at the UVI Wellness Center, a fourth has just finished her workout, showered and is heading back to the office. The fact that UVI employees are now using their lunch hour to workout makes Lorenzo Donastorg overjoyed. Donastorg is the coordinator of the Wellness Center. The 6,250 square foot center on St. Thomas has an aerobics and dance studio with a sprung-wood floor, and a fitness equipment room with weight training and cardiovascular equipment. When Donastorg joined the University three years ago – getting people into the center, yet alone during their lunch hour, was a hard sell. The biggest excuse – time. “People were fixed on that,” Donastorg says. “What I tell people is that even 20 minutes is better than nothing.” That thought is catching on. Now, when Donastorg runs into employees working out on their lunch hour, he has to contain his excitement. “I don’t want my enthusiasm to scare people,” he says with a laugh, although he makes a point of greeting and encouraging all members.

Donastorg has seen membership in all categories at the Wellness Center increase, and is quick to share the success. “It’s not just me. I’m not doing this by myself,” he says. “It’s not a one-person battle. We are doing this together,” he adds, referring to UVI’s Wellness Committee. The committee was formed partly in response to the UVI Strategic Plan goal to “improve employee wellness across the University,” and partly in response to a goal of the Virgin Islands Government to improve employee health and reduce health insurance costs.

“The Virgin Islands Government (VIG) can no longer sustain health insurance (costs),” explains UVI’s Interim Human Resources Director Veda Richards. The paradigm must shift from disease management to improving wellness, Richards says. The Government Employees Service Commission (GESC) Group Health Insurance Board oversees the operation of government employees’ health and other benefit plans. The board formed a Wellness Committee to assist in changing employees thinking in regards to health management. They began with campaigns to get people to think healthier, says Richards, who is an associate member of the GESC board. According to Richards, the cost of health insurance for UVI is $4 million per year. This figure includes the employee premium cost. CIGNA, the VIG’s health insurance carrier, has committed $200,000 per year over the next five years to the VIG’s Wellness Committee’s initiatives, Richards says.

The first initiative was the “Healthy Baby, Healthy Child” campaign in 2011, that provided tips to pregnant women to increase chances of having healthy babies. The second was a Wellness Expo in 2012, where attendees were offered free biometric screenings. Richards explains that participants were encouraged to “know their numbers” – blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference – a first step in managing health. The third initiative was the “10,000 Steps a Day” campaign in 2013, which was geared to increasing heart health.

“Studies show that if individuals take 10,000 steps per day they are more apt to having a healthy heart,” Richards says. Participants received pedometers to measure their steps and were required to log on daily to a website to record their steps. Approximately 300 UVI employees registered for the program, however; 175 employees actively participated in the eight- week program on both campuses. Richards says the results were positive.

Neville Williams, on the St. Thomas campus, tallied an amazing 1,652,577 steps! On St. Thomas the two other top steppers were Sharlene Harris with 660,360 steps and Joy Harrigan with 559,915 steps. On the Albert A. Sheen Campus on St. Croix, the top stepper was Myrtle Pemberton with 660,132. Marcia Taylor came in second with 568,095 and David Capriola came in third with 531,521. The top three steppers on each campus have received arrays of gifts, including an iPod, gym-in-a-bag, Panini grill and digital jump rope.

Donastorg piggy-backed on the “10,000 Steps a Day” campaign launching a month-long “Aerobics Challenge” two weeks after the “10,000 Steps a Day” campaign began. It involved an e-mail campaign that mass-mailed fitness facts and tips to UVI employees. Donastorg’s challenge was two-fold: to get participants to meet their goal of 10,000 steps per day and to get them into the Wellness Center. Nineteen people signed up for the challenge – some were employees, but the group also included students, alumni and senior citizens. “Everyone from the Aerobics Challenge kept asking me for a next challenge,” Donastorg says. The next challenge, this time for two months, will roll out in August, he says. Four hundred dollars in prize money – provided solely from Donastorg’s personal funds – are up for grabs.

The VIG’s Wellness Committee has upcoming campaigns in the works. A 24-hour Zumba Marathon is being planned for the summer. Other ideas for 2013 include a swim challenge, tennis carnival, diabetic challenge and body mass index (BMI) challenge. In 2014, the VIG’s Wellness Committee will focus on healthy eating. Richards says that CIGNA anticipates reduced health care costs after a five-year cycle. But Donastorg emphasizes that results to individuals come much quicker. A participant in his Aerobics Challenge lost 14 pounds in one month. Those are results you can see and feel.