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CDC takes its own advice

For decades, the nation's top public health agency has promoted exercise and healthy eating - and offered its own employees high-fat cafeteria food and a lackluster fitness center. But no more.

In the past three years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revamped cafeteria menus, wheeled out produce carts and renovated its office plazas to encourage walking.

The centerpiece of those efforts is in Building 20, a $21-million, five-story edifice on the eastern edge of the main campus. The new office building includes a state-of-the-art fitness center, which opened in June.

"We want this to become a model for companies and others to copy," said Tom Skinner, a CDC spokesman.

An upgrade of the CDC's gym was long overdue, said some longtime employees, who can recall the days of nothing more than a basketball court and one universal machine.

That gym was gradually upgraded. But even in recent years, it was hardly ideal.

"They had just three treadmills, and one would always say 'Out of Order,' " said Kelley Hise, 30, who works with CDC's food-borne disease tracking system.

The 16,000-square-foot center features about $200,000 in equipment, including more than 70 strength-training and cardiovascular machines. It's free to the CDC's 15,000 employees.

The number of employees getting exercise at the center has more than doubled, from around 250 a month in July-October 2005 to more than 600 a month for the same period this year.

Creating a healthy culture is also part of the plan. Employees are encouraged to walk and have meetings in person. There is music in the stairwells, to help keep people out of the elevators.

The CDC also offers weight-management classes, grocery shopping seminars, health assessments and walking programs.

The agency also has improved its cafeteria fare and expanded its salad bars.

Whether these activities are paying off in a healthier work force is unclear. CDC officials say they haven't had a comprehensive study of employees' health.