ST. ALBANS — Over the past two years, Elaine Audy has lost weight, lowered her blood pressure and begun competing in powerlifting competitions, thanks in part to her employer, the Northwestern Medical Center (NMC).
“I’m 56 and I can throw on a string bikini at the beach,” said Audy.
NMC pays for employee memberships to the Collins Perley Sports & Fitness Center where Audy, a medical technologist, trains. The gym memberships are part of an initiative known as Healthy Ü.
In 2009, 40 percent of NMC’s workforce of 750 had a high risk for a variety of illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. Now only 19 percent at are at high risk.
NMC has been working since 2000 to improve its employees’ health and reduce its insurance costs.
“Keeping our employees healthy is what we really want to do,” said Suzanne Tremblay, lifestyle medicine supervisor.
NMC didn’t begin tracking its return on investment from the program until 2011. That return is currently at three percent, but Tremblay said six to eight percent is typical in the third year of tracking.
The cost savings are shared with employees in the form of reduced insurance premiums. There are also a number of NMC employee contests and activities, some with prizes large and small.
In Dump Your Plump, teams compete to either lose weight or maintain their current weight, for example. Another challenge, 10K-A-Day involves taking 10,000 steps per day.
Participants can win prizes such as $100 gift cards.
NMC Surgical Services Nurse Regina LeClair lost 40 pounds over two 12-week sessions of Dump Your Plump in 2012, winning the contest in her department each time.
As part of her weight-loss efforts, she followed the Dump Your Plump recommendation to exercise 30 minutes each day.
Initially, she walked on a treadmill, then she began running. When spring arrived she shifted to running outside. Now she runs marathons.
“What started as a weight loss challenge blew up for me into this fitness lifestyle that I can’t get enough of,” LeClair wrote in a “success story” describing her efforts. “I look forward to all the workouts… I think of food more for fuel for my body instead fuel for my tongue! Don’t get me wrong…I still enjoy some ‘bad’ food, but it’s in moderation and once during the weekend or once during the week.”
The hospital also offers reimbursement for fitness classes and equipment.
The Healthy Ü program begins with two individual health assessments each year including setting goals for improved health.
Audy said that for a long time her goal was simply not to gain weight as she aged and to avoid a worsening of her borderline high blood pressure. Then she began going to the gym while her husband was in physical therapy sessions.
She became interested in the free weigh exercises such as the bench press, squat and deadlift that other women were doing. One of the women offered Audy the chance to join a weightlifting team.
Then Jackie Brown, a well-known local and competitive weight lifter, began putting together a powerlifting team for the Pan-American competition in Chicago. Audy joined. “I did swimmingly,” she said.
Her age and petite build are an advantage, putting her in a category with fewer competitors. “I’ve never been so happy to be so old and so small,” she said.
Her increased fitness has improved multiple aspects of her life. “I can carry a five-gallon pail of water,” Audy said. “I can push that wheelbarrow.”
She’s also sleeping better and her blood pressure is completely normal.
Audy credits Healthy Ü with helping make the change.
As part of Dump Your Plumb the NMC cafeteria offered low-calorie, high nutrition entrees. Those meals have continued even though the official Dump Your Plumb contest has ended.
“The salad bar has gotten amazing,” said Audy. Every Friday NMC offers its employees free fruit. Staff members ask one another if they’ve gotten their fruit, she said.
The culture at the hospital has changed, she said. At break time she and her co-workers used to eat cheese nachos. Now they eat peanuts in shells. More than half of the people she works with on her shift also exercise at Collins Perley.
NMC employees look forward to the Dump Your Plumb and 10,000 step contests, she said.
Although Audy is happy to be wearing that bikini, the emphasis is on health and well being rather than appearance, said Tremblay.
“We think everyone has to look a certain way, but everyone’s different,” she said. “It’s really trying to be well in all aspects.”