Benefits advisers and HR executives know a lot about health and wellness programs. We read about them, discuss them, recommend them and - increasingly - implement and run them.

But how many of us really understand what it's like to take part in one? Do we know what type of program is more likely to get someone up before dawn to go to the gym? Or what makes the difference between long-term success and failure when trying to embrace a healthier lifestyle? Do we really understand the activities we're asking our clients and employees to embrace?

Benefits pros Joe Ellis, Anne Marie Ludovici-Connolly and Heather Bell do, having taken part in this year's EBA Wellness Challenge, a personalized health coaching program sponsored by and produced in cooperation with Nationwide Better Health.

From August to December - typically the most hectic months in the benefits industry - Ellis, a broker-consultant, Ludovici-Connolly, a consultant, and Bell, an HR-benefits manager, worked with Nationwide Better Health lifestyle wellness coach Shana Pack-Gangluff on developing strategies that would put them on a path to lifetime wellness. During telephone counseling sessions, Pack-Gangluff provided personalized advice and access to pertinent wellness information from Nationwide and other sources.

The Nationwide Better Health program not only taught Ellis, Ludovici-Connolly and Bell how to achieve their personal goals, but also gave them insights they'll apply in their work. EBA asked them to talk about what motivated them to get involved in the program and some of the lessons learned.

 

TAKING ON THE CHALLENGE

The 2010 Wellness Challenge participants could be Benefits Every Man/Woman: Each is generally healthy, action-oriented, and trying to juggle full work and personal lives. Typically, that means sacrificing "me" time and forgoing exercise - a cornerstone of wellness.

Bell, Ludovici-Connolly and Ellis took on the Challenge in hopes of learning new ways to balance work, family and wellness priorities and incorporate healthier activities into their daily routines. Here's how they described their goals at the start of the program.

"I am a relatively healthy 57 year old," says Ellis, a senior VP with CBIZ, the nation's second-largest employee benefits advisory firm and one of the largest benefits brokers. "I'm not overweight, and I don't smoke. But my diet and exercise goes in and out. Sometimes it's great, sometimes not.

"I know that I feel better after I've been to the gym. I'm tired, but it's a good tired. There's no doubt that my mind is sharper when I'm dealing with clients. My listening is better and my ability to offer advice is more acute. The challenge for me is to make that stick - to create habits that will be unquestionably healthy all of the time. When I come home, I want to play baseball in the yard with my 8- and 10-year-old boys. They don't want to hear that I'm tired."

Like Ellis, Ludovici-Connolly wanted to get back to a steady exercise regimen - something that was a major part of her life when she was a personal trainer and director of the governor's Get Fit, Rhode Island! program.

"Although I know exactly what I should and shouldn't do, I don't exercise as much as I need to now," she says. "It's very difficult to maintain a regular exercise schedule due to the nature of my job as a consultant at Aon Hewitt. I work in very tight time frames, and I do a lot of traveling on short notice. Also, at age 50, I'm at a point where your body changes and your metabolism slows. Sitting a computer amplifies this."

Ellis and Ludovici-Connolly also had professional reasons for wanting to take part in the Nationwide Better Health program.

"Over the past six months, I've had more employers ask me if I can talk with them about wellness," notes Ellis. "CBIZ is dedicating a lot of effort to this. I felt that to be the best prepared, I should go through the process myself. It's like the shoemaker making his own shoes. I want to be able to sit in front of an employer or employee as a fit individual and help them understand what people who go through a [wellness] program experience."

Ludovici-Connolly also wanted to "walk the talk."

"I've always been the health coach; I believe in the accountability and social support a coach provides," she says. "I wanted to experience working with one. Also, I wanted to learn more about Nationwide's program."

For Bell, whose large family and job as a benefits specialist with Wichita-based Bombardier Aerospace keep her moving at top speed, the focus was weight loss through exercise and better eating habits. "I've done diets with some success, and I like the immediate satisfaction of that," she says. "But I find that the weight comes back. So I need to change my lifestyle and habits.

"I take pain medication for my back, and I want to lose weight and get stronger so that I can go off it. I got down to 150 pounds in 2008 and was able to go off the meds. When I think back to how I felt then, it motivates me to do it again."

 

SETTING GOALS

Having a goal or goals when beginning a wellness program is essential, says Pack-Gangluff, a certified health education specialist whose career in corporate health and wellness spans 15 years. Goal setting should be planned carefully, or you could start off on the wrong foot.

"People usually come into a wellness program with the end in mind, such as 'I want to weigh X,' 'I want to stop smoking,' or 'I want my stress level to come down,'" she explains. "If they don't have specific goals, we help them paint the picture by asking, 'Over the next six to nine months, what would you see as examples of being in your best health?'"

The next step is to break the long-term goals down into short-term goals and assign action steps to each.

"For example, say you want to lose 50 pounds over a nine-month program. "I'd say, 'Would you agree to a 35-pound weight loss during the next nine months, which would be one or two pounds each week, and then another 18 pounds after that?' That is more realistic. We then assign action steps - how you're going to lose that weight each month through diet and exercise. You keep your end goal in sight, while committing to small action steps along the way."

With Pack-Gangluff's help, Ellis pinpointed very specific long-term and short-term goals. "There's an enormous amount of information on the Nationwide Better Health Web site," he notes. "You pick and choose, figure out what is important to you, and set goals around that.

"Short-term, we decided I would maintain my current weight, but rather than focus on BMI, we're focusing on body fat percentage and reducing that. Another short-term goal was to earn 50 better health points per week through the program.

"Longer term, I want to attain consistently lower lipid numbers, blood pressure readings and resting heart rate. I also want to create eating habits that are consistent with good health. That's a whole lot harder than I thought it would be. Shana told me she wanted me to have nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but I didn't know what a serving was. She also suggested limiting salt to one gram a day. I had to figure out that was about one teaspoon. I was blown away by the complexity. At home, it's hard to constantly calculate, and eating out makes it particularly difficult."

 

SMALL STEPS

Ellis, Bell and Ludovici-Connolly agree that having realistic short-term goals has made a huge difference in helping them stay motivated.

"I started by talking with Shana about my long-term goals," Bell recalls. "She suggested that I set weekly or even daily goals to avoid becoming overwhelmed. The baby step approach was very different for me, but I did it, and it worked well. I realized that the reason I wasn't able to accomplish my goals before because I was too focused on the end result, which became overwhelming. Taking it one step at a time seems like common sense, but it was a big change in my thinking."

At the start of the program, Bell quickly dropped 10 pounds by reducing her daily calorie intake and incorporating 30 minutes of exercise into each day. "Shana explained that even walking from the car to the office building or up stairs counted toward the 30 minutes."

Pack-Gangluff also showed Bell how to set up an online food diary where she tracked everything she ate and drank. "It's a good way to see what you really do eat," she says. "You tend to think that a piece or two of candy during the day won't matter, but when you see it listed repeatedly, you know it's something you can cut out."

 

BEING ACCOUNTABLE

But just having goals isn't enough. The participants agree that being accountable for their actions is an important success factor.

"I have to say that one of the biggest surprises for me was the accountability Shana creates," says Ellis. "You don't want to get on the phone with her when you haven't done what you said you were going to do. When someone is spending time on you, you don't want to disappoint them.

"Having a goal of getting to the gym five days a week and putting in 45 minutes of good solid exercise each time is a measurable goal," he continues. "But who is doing the measuring? The coaching program created accountability. I chart my progress on line, and the coach tells me where I am relative to my goals."

Ludovici-Connolly sums it up this way: "When you have to be accountable, you try harder to do what you've committed to."

Bell agrees. "Accountability is very important to me. If I'm only accountable to myself, I'll let myself cheat."

Although the Nationwide Better Health program has a self-help option, says Pack-Gangluff, "I feel the personal approach, the continuity and the accountability a coach brings makes change happen for people. Sometimes it's just having an unbiased person listening to them. People are more motivated."

Many wellness program participants have a good family or social support system, which helps, she adds. "For some, though, we are the support system."

 

SURVIVING SETBACKS

Even with solid goals, strong motivation and accountability, setbacks always will occur. So Pack-Gangluff makes sure that her clients learn to be resilient.

"Slips or bumps in the road occur when something throws a person off of their routine. It may be business travel or a special occasion, such as a holiday or family event. I encourage people to have Plan B set in advance. Be aware of the potential issues, make compromises, and be okay with your decision. If you accept little slips, your chance of long-term success is better because you're able to get back on track."

Bell found that when open enrollment kicked into high gear at Bombardier, her newly established routine fell by the wayside. She didn't have time to exercise or talk to Pack-Gangluff as much as she would have liked.

"My highest point in the program was at the beginning, because I was losing weight steadily and knew I was making better food choices. The lowest point was in early October, when I missed a couple of meetings with Shana, and I realized that I was getting off track because I didn't have that accountability she provided. Accountability is very important for me; if I'm accountable only to myself, I'll let myself cheat."

Instead of letting this setback derail her, however, Bell applied what Pack-Gangluff taught her. She temporarily changed her goal from losing weight to maintaining it. She also forgave herself whenever she hit rather than cleared a hurdle.

"If you cheat once during the day, you tend to think that the whole day is shot. For example, if you eat a doughnut for breakfast, it's easy to say that you've already messed up, so why not have a cheeseburger for lunch and pizza for dinner? Shana explained that if you eat the doughnut, just make it a point to exercise 30 more minutes that day. I learned how to look at it almost moment by moment."

 

PROGRAM TAKEAWAYS

Scheduling conflicts also prevented Ludovici-Connolly from talking with Pack-Gangluff as often as she would have liked. While she fell short of her goal to increase exercise and regain strength, she did succeed in reducing her stress levels. "I'm now setting realistic goals and not expecting so much from myself," says Ludovici-Connolly. "For example, I no longer feel that I have to exercise every day. I can exercise for 10 minutes or 20 minutes and not feel guilty that I didn't do it for 40."

She also was able to improve her work-life balance in a way she did not foresee.

"I didn't realize how wrapped up I was in responding to the needs of others rather than my needs. I sacrificed my health often by canceling appointments with doctors and vacations because I did not give myself permission to say 'no.' Now, unless it's a client, I'm much more willing to let things go."

In fact, Ludovici-Connolly recently took a two-and-a-half week vacation with her husband to visit family in Italy. "This was the first vacation in three years when I did not respond to e-mails and calls. To me, that's a huge benefit I've received from the program. Maybe I didn't get stronger, but I definitely feel proud of myself."

At Bombardier, Bell's colleagues have seen the positive changes she's made, and she's determined to keep going.

"I've embraced the concept of looking at things on a day-to-day and even a moment-by-moment basis," she says. "I've learned that every little thing makes a difference. People tend to think that the small activities don't count; if you walk a few extra steps, it won't matter. But it really does help - the steps all add up. The people here at work have seen the difference it has made for me."

Ellis has achieved his goal of creating habits around diet, nutrition and exercise. He also says that Pack-Gangluff raised his consciousness to certain stresses in his life he did not realize were there, and he's taken steps to reduce them.

"I have a lifestyle now that I did not have before. I had parts of it, but it was haphazard. I now check in every day on what I've learned though the program. If I really get the urge to have fast food or a great steak, it's fine because I know how often I should do it and how to get back into balance. There's great freedom in that.

"If I had to talk with clients about just one thing, it would not be health care reform, it would be wellness. This experience has made me much more of a believer."

 

 

Meet Anne Marie Ludovici-Connolly

Ludovici-Connolly, 50, is a senior consultant in Aon Hewitt's Health Management Consulting Practice, where she specializes in wellness programs. Her book, Winning Health Promotion Strategies, a guide to designing, implementing and evaluating wellness programs, was published by Human Kinetics this year. Ludovici-Connolly has more than 30 years of experience in the health and wellness industry, which includes a three-year stint as director of the governor's Get Fit, Rhode Island! program, a statewide wellness initiative, and serving as scholar in residence at the University of Rhode Island's Cancer Prevention Research Center. She holds a master's degree in the psychosocial aspects of exercise physiology from the University of Rhode Island and has developed and taught college-level health and wellness courses. She also owned and operated her own health and fitness center in Wakefield, R.I., where she lives with her husband Greg and 21-year-old son Kyle. She enjoys traveling and skiing with her family, cooking and exercising. `

 

 

Meet Heather Bell

Bell, 37, is senior benefits specialist at Bombardier Aerospace U.S. in Wichita, Kan. Bombardier manufactures regional and business jets and employs 5,000 people. Bell has been with the company since February, 2007. Prior to that, she was benefits representative at Koch Business Solutions, LLP. She obtained her bachelor's degree from Baker University and is completing her master's degree program in Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management. A die-hard New York Yankees fan, Bell attends games every year in New York, and this past May she became engaged there. She and her fiance, Jeremy, have four children in their blended family - Cory Lelan (18), Hayley (16), Brianne (9) and Jacob (8). All are helping to keep Bell focused on wellness goals.

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