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HEALTHY IDEAS AT WORK

Some employers see the benefit of helping workers get into better shape.

For B.J. Earley, his job isn't just where he pursues his professional goals, it's also where he achieved a lifelong personal ambition. Earley, 34, lost 80 pounds with the help of his employer, Pepin Distributing Co.

"I've been heavy all my life," said Earley, who works out an hour a day at the company gym. "I haven't been this light since I was 14 years old. I always knew how to lose weight, but I didn't have the motivation to do it until this program.''

Pepin launched a wellness initiative in December that allows employees and dependents in the health insurance plan to enroll in a medically supervised weight loss clinic for free - if they keep the weight off for a year.

The Anheuser-Busch distributor is one of many employers that are embracing workplace wellness programs as good for their employees and good for business. Studies indicate the programs increase productivity and cut costs.

But in these economic times, many employers are reluctant to offer programs that can take years to show cost-savings, and won't work at all if employees aren't motivated to participate.

Spending saves money

Pepin decided to cover the $1,800 to $2,000 per person cost to encourage weight loss and prevent or reduce complications of obesity such as heart disease and diabetes. The plan is supervised by a physician through Medi-Weightloss Clinics and includes a low-carb diet, appetite suppressants, vitamin injections and counseling on exercise and diet. Participants agree to attend weekly appointments and keep a personal food journal.

The plan is considerably more expensive than programs such as Weight Watchers, which some employers offer. But if Pepin participants gain back the weight within a year after finishing the program, they must reimburse the company in full.

Pepin spends more than $2 million annually on health care for its more than 300 employees. The company expects to see a return of $3 to $4 on every $1 spent on the weight-loss program.

"It saves you on the bottom line and improves quality of life for our employees. And a happy employee is a good employee," says J. Paul Pepin, craft and specialty beer manager.

The Tampa-based Employers Health Coalition reported in a 2007-08 survey that wellness programs saved money and improved productivity by 34 percent. A 2007 American Heart Association survey found that employees in companies that encouraged healthy habits used fewer sick days, had greater job satisfaction and did better work.

Aon Consulting, one of the largest human resources consulting firms in the country, reports that wellness programs are more popular than ever, with some companies offering onsite primary health care clinics and pharmacies.

In May, President Barack Obama threw his support behind several successful workplace wellness programs, pledging to find out if the federal government should also join the effort.

The American Heart Association recognizes employers that support heart healthy practices. Among local employers that have earned the designation is James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

"We want to be good examples for our patients," said registered dietitian Brenda Burdette, program coordinator. Haley offers free onsite exercise classes, maps of campus walking trails and programs on nutrition, stress reduction and illness prevention. Employees can get comprehensive blood testing for $3. "Last year we reached more than 4,000 employees with our health information," she said. "Our employee gym gets more than 1,000 visits a month." Haley's cost for all the programs: less than $1 per employee.

Benefits down the road

But not all employers are convinced, or can wait the 3 to 5 years it can take to see a return on their investment. Dr. Charles Bens, a nutrition expert and founder of Healthy at Work, a Sarasota wellness consulting firm, said half the Florida companies he approaches are cutting back on programs. "They don't see the connection between prevention and saving money down the road," he said.

Dr. Jay Wolfson, an expert on health policy at the University of South Florida, said even the best plan won't work if employees don't participate.

"In most cases, the people attracted to these programs are the ones who are already engaging in healthy behaviors or have tried before to lose weight or quit smoking," Wolfson says.

Still, "there is clear evidence that the ones who participate do end up saving their employers money," says Wolfson.

Wayne Watkins, 57, a sales manager at Pepin, is confident he's saving the company money.

He has lost 65 pounds since January, and lowered his blood pressure significantly. "I came off of one medication,'' he said. "I'm down to half a pill a day on another and my doctor says I'll probably be off that one soon, too."

Irene Maher can be reached at imaher@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3416.

* * *

B.J. EARLEY, 34, WORKS OUT IN THE COMPANY GYM

Starting weight: 295

Current weight: 215

"My cholesterol dropped 50 points. I was prediabetic when I started. . . . Everyone in the family has benefited. My fiancee has lost weight, too."

* * *

WAYNE WATKINS, 57, WALKS 2 MILES A DAY

Starting weight: 265

Current weight: 200

"The first two weeks were tough, then it was easy. The program teaches you to make good choices. . . . I had to get a whole new wardrobe."

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