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MHealthy assessments show stress, weight as top issues

Learn more about MHealthy >

See how MHealthy has impacted various departments at U-M >

Following a major report showing obesity left unchecked will cost U.S. companies $344 billion by 2018, the university has released results from the MHealthy Wellness Assessments that show weight and stress as two of the largest health concerns for U-M employees.

A U.S. News & World Report article, which reports research presented last week during the American Heart Association's annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., says obesity will drive increasing health costs.

In fact, 70 percent of all illnesses are preventable and develop from lifestyle choices, says Dr. Robert Winfield, chief health officer and director of the University Health Service.

"As an employer facing the challenge of containing health care costs, the university benefits from keeping healthy employees well while helping those who are at risk or experiencing health issues feel and function better both at home and at work," Winfield says. "Research shows us that employer-sponsored health and well-being programs can have a significant impact on not only improving the health and well-being of its employees but also reducing costs."

In the biometric screenings of the MHealthy Wellness Assessments, 39 percent of participants had a waist size outside a healthy range, results show.

"In Ann Arbor, we don't think of this as a community with weight problems. But the data showed, just like other communities, we have a lot of people struggling with weight concerns too," says LaVaughn Palma-Davis, senior director of University Health & Well-Being Services. "We are exploring what we can do to help them."

The high number of people reporting stress came as a surprise to Palma-Davis. The Wellness Assessments — which provided a confidential health evaluation and individualized plan for improvement — identified stress as the top health behavior with avoidable costs, accounting for 28.6 percent of participants.

"We dug into it and found three top sources of stress: coping with too much to do, job responsibilities and finances," Palma-Davis says. "That reinforced this as a big issue for us to address."

As a result, U-M and MHealthy officials put together a new task force to see how the university can help address this health risk, including both organizational and individual actions, she says.

A total of 17,786 employees took part in the MHealthy Wellness Assessments. The aggregate data will help the university better understand the collective health of its employees and assist with planning future programs that address the needs of the community.

In addition to weight (37 percent) and stress (20 percent), the assessments also identified the university's other top health risk areas by prevalence as back care (32 percent), cholesterol (25 percent), and exercise (24 percent).

The results also show that 35 percent of employees were outside the healthy range for total cholesterol (greater than 199), 21 percent for HDL (less than 40), and 13 percent for blood pressure (greater than 139/89).

These Wellness Assessment results show that MHealthy officials are right on track with targeted health and well-being programs offered to date, such as Understanding U, for mental and emotional support; Active U, which promotes exercise; and Good Choice, which focuses on healthier eating, Palma-Davis says. But, she says, the results of the assessments show more needs to be done to engage the entire community in the programs, and work to create a healthier workplace.

According to the assessments, a large percentage of employees are ready to make changes to improve their health. The top five health behaviors where people were both at risk and ready to change include weight (47 percent), exercise (41 percent), stress (38 percent), eating (36 percent) and cholesterol (16 percent).

"Our goal is to be a model community of health. A positive environment, healthy social norms, buddy systems and access to resources all make it easier to achieve and maintain our health improvement goals. We need it to become a communitywide effort," Palma-Davis says. "Research shows that if we're going to really impact community health, we need high levels of engagement — 70 percent or more.

"MHealthy encourages and supports faculty and staff in practicing healthy behaviors. This is accomplished through motivational campaigns, programs and resources, and efforts to create a healthy workplace culture at the university, such as improving our healthy eating options and moving to a smoke-free campus. Departments and leaders play an important role too."

As director of the Materiel Services Department, U-M Health System, Frank Krupansky regularly works with MHealthy to educate his employees.

As a way to continually bring wellness out to his staff's attention, Krupansky's department takes part in an 18-month plan that focuses on different ways to stay healthy.

"There are all these things we can do, diet, exercise, stress reduction, but we can only deal with so many changes," he says. "So our approach is each month to focus on something specific."

Topics have included the importance of breakfast, using sunscreen and drinking water.

Each month, Materiel Services Department Supervisor Jean Harris prepares a table with educational information from MHealthy along with samples, such as healthy cereal, sunscreen or bottles of water.

"My hope is that these little changes are going to help people to live a healthier lifestyle," Krupansky says. "Jean's table is interesting because I notice not only our staff but people who are walking by will stop and pick up the information she has out there."

After attending an MHealthy fitness assessment a few years ago, Sonia Schmerl decided to take action.

"The results inspired me to think seriously about fitness," says Schmerl, department administrator, Department of Comparative Literature, LSA. She made efforts to build exercise into her daily schedule and eventually lost 25 pounds. She also participated in a six-month MHealthy class that focused on nutrition, exercise and lifestyle.

"It was a gradual process of becoming more aware of things I can do in day-to-day life to increase fitness and make better nutrition choices," she says, adding when catering events for her department she now is more conscious about providing healthier food options.

Her department also got ergonomic assessments through MHealthy, and ordered new office equipment and chairs. While she found the chair helpful, Schmerl still had trouble sitting for long periods of time, so she found MHealthy classes that help.

Now Schmerl attends MHealthy classes weekly in her building.

"We have yoga once a week, and an abs/back class," she says. "It's nice to be able to exercise during the day and near the office. It's so much easier to fit into the schedule. It makes a great difference for me."

The university currently offers many opportunities to participate in MHealthy programs, in-person, online and even telephone options for health coaching. Go to the MHealthy Web site at mhealthy.umich.edu to learn more about all of the resources that are available.

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