3 Ways Cities Are Battling The Bulge

Many cities are finding the best way to reduce health-related costs is to improve wellness opportunities for employees

By Mary Velan


With the different changes surrounding healthcare coverage over the past few years, the correlation between employee wellness and government healthcare costs has become blatantly apparent. Many cities are finding the best way to reduce health-related costs is to improve wellness opportunities for employees. These healthy campaigns include incentives, access to resources and a strong support system to help workers achieve wellness goals.

Designing a Healthy City

After Oklahoma City was named one of America's most overweight cities a few years ago, the mayor decided the city needed to go on a diet. Oklahoma City launched a challenge to all residents to lose a total of 1 million pounds. The diet and exercise initiative  reached its goal in 2011 after implementing a variety of programs and policies to create a healthier environment for all residents.

So how exactly did Oklahoma City lose 1 million pounds?

The city decided to tackle obesity from all angles. First, the challenge was launched, followed by the introduction of a tax to fund a redesign of the state capital to encourage more walking and bicycling. Other similar redesigns include the addition of:

  • Parks
  • Sidewalks
  • Bike lanes
  • Landscaped walking trails

The city wanted to veer away from the car-dependent lifestyle and get residents outside and active.

Furthermore, the city decided to place greater emphasis on physical activity throughout the day. Every school was sure to have an updated gymnasium, while $100 million was spent on creating a state-of-the-art rowing and kayaking center.

Each of these changes was strategically made in communities with the greatest need. The city used public health data to pinpoint neighborhoods with the highest rates of obesity and worst health outcomes, and poured in wellness resources to change behavior and results. Rather than penalizing residents for making bad dietary choices - like with soda bans - the city opted to encourage healthier living through environmental changes.

Incentivizing Change

King County , Washington, has developed an employee wellness program that provides participating employees with a good reason to change their bad habits: financial incentives. The county developed an award-winning wellness program years ago and recently announced it expand the initiative to pilot a project to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. While more public employees and residents make better food choices, local farmers reap the economic benefits.

The Healthy Local Eating pilot project is designed to strengthen the farm-to-plate pipeline while boosting residential wellness. The goals of the program include:

  • Connecting farmers to consumers
  • Increasing access to healthy, affordable foods in underserved communities
  • Supporting farmers and protected farmland
  • Creating a sustainable farm-to-plate pipeline more resilient to the effects of climate change

Through the program, 13,000 employees have the opportunity to reduce their out-of-pocked healthcare costs by purchasing locally grown produce. An extension of the county's existing Healthy Incentives program, the campaign goes beyond encouraging healthy choices to support local farmers as well.

Employees who participate in the wellness activities such as exercise, smoking cessation or diabetes control are rewarded with lower out-of-pocket expenses. The pilot program adds purchases of local fruits and vegetables from farmers markets and community-sponsored agriculture programs as another way for employees to meet their goals and reduce costs.

To launch the program, King County utilized a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for planning and awareness campaigns.

Providing Tools

It is one thing to challenge people to eat healthy and be more active. It is another thing to offer the necessary resources to make these choices possible. Springfield, Ohio, decided to add free outdoor workout equipment at a new park to all residents. The goal of the free equipment is to reverse the poor local health rankings of Clark County and make healthy living feasible for everyone.

The Warder Fit Stop is built into an outdoor park right off a bike path into downtown Springfield. The stop will feature cardio, core strength and balance equipment to support a variety of workout activities. To pay for the fit stop, Springfield used a $20,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Health's Creating Healthy Communities Program. The program is designed to:

  • Improve access to healthy, affordable food
  • Increase opportunities for physical activity
  • Assure tobacco-free living where residents live, work and play

The goal of the park and several other initiatives through the program is to remove the barriers preventing residents from staying active or eating healthy, Springfield News Sun reported.

What To Consider

When developing an employee wellness program, city officials should consider several factors that impact participation levels and, inevitably, program success. While providing incentives and resources may seem like enough, many employees may not respond to traditional programs.

For example, many individuals may not take advantage of on-site fitness centers due to a variety of challenges including:

  • Lack of time to exercise
  • Lack of variety of equipment or classes
  • Intimidation of working out at a gym

Because cities cannot afford to build a massive gym with extensive resources, many are finding affordable ways to provide a customized experience at a fraction of the cost. Some employers are providing at-home workout options that cater to a hectic schedule or a preference for privacy. By working out to a variety of online classes from the comfort of their homes, employees can choose how and when they get through their workouts - which make the activities more enjoyable.

Other ways employees are keeping workers healthy on a budget is by offering healthy treats in the workplace on a regular basis. These perks include:

  • Stocking fresh fruit and snacks in the break room
  • Organizing healthy potlucks for group lunches
  • Hiring a yoga or meditation instructor to lead regular classes during lunch hours
  • Conducting meetings while taking a walk around the building or the office
  • Providing employees with standing desks
  • Encouraging employees to form groups to workout together
  • Bringing in nutritionists, health coaches and other wellness professionals to lead educational discussions

Finally, employers are focusing on reducing workforce stress as a constant means of improving overall health and wellbeing. To make work more tolerable, many cities are offering flexible work hours and opportunities to work from home to ensure employees enjoy a healthy work-life balance. The healthier the worker, the more productive the workforce. That will make everyone happy to come to work.

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