Picture of Health

by Tabatha B. McDonald

Wellness Centers, new initiatives help students, employees get in shape

Maria Velez slipped on her black Reebok tennis shoes and stepped away from her desk at Palm Beach State College for 15 minutes one recent sunny morning to take a brisk one-mile walk around campus. Then she went back to work energized and focused.

The daily, sometimes twice-a-day, walks around the Lake Worth campus and the strength training and cardio routine she squeezes into her lunch break at the campus Wellness Center have become as natural as breathing for the 45-year-old administrative assistant. “I have it down to a science,” she said. “It’s a way of life for me.”

Velez exercised before landing the job at the College in 1998, but she said having easy access to the Wellness Center and to lectures on healthy living make staying fit convenient. For her, exercise, proper nutrition and weight control are keys to avoiding heart disease and other health conditions that have affected her family for generations. Her father, paternal grandfather and great grandfather all died of heart attacks, and diabetes and high blood pressure are prevalent among her mother’s family.

“I’ve always exercised. I never joined a gym because I couldn’t afford it. When I came here and learned there was a Wellness Center and it was free for employees, I was excited,” she said.  “My motivation is warding off these predisposed genetic diseases that exist in my family. I have to be very careful.”

As Palm Beach State College has built new buildings at the Boca Raton, Palm Beach Gardens and Belle Glade campuses, it also has established modernized Wellness Centers. Now, a new Wellness Center is under construction on the Lake Worth campus to replace the existing facility. It is slated to open in early 2013 as part of the third phase of the College’s new Public Safety Training Complex.

Each campus Wellness Center has various classes, state-of-the-art equipment brands such as Life Fitness, workout DVDs such as “Insanity,” “Tae Bo” and “Zumba” and supportive staff to help students and employees reach their fitness goals.

“When I’m stressed from all of the tests and homework, I come over here and release my stress,’’ said Palm Beach State student and aspiring civil engineer Kender Louisius, as he wrapped up his workout at the Wellness Center in Lake Worth. He said his goal is to build up his muscles, and having easy access to the Wellness Center is helping him. “It keeps me in shape. It keeps me healthy so I don’t have to worry about the health problems or diseases out here. It helps me breathe properly, and it boosts your self-esteem because you look good.”

New wellness centers, lectures, gift card incentive programs, fitness challenges, dance classes, an intramural running club for students and employees, and a jump rope club are among numerous efforts to encourage more students and employees to get in shape and to make it exciting and a way of life.

The initiatives are in line with growing trends around the nation to help curb the obesity epidemic that leads to higher incidences of heart disease, diabetes and other ailments and contributes to the skyrocketing costs of health care. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 3 adults and 1 in 6 children are obese, and obesity costs the country $150 billion a year.

“If these (students) are exposed to the fitness concept while they’re here, they can get into it from the get go. If they are fit, they’re going to feel better, they’re going to look better and they’re going to perform better,” said Lyn Becker, wellness center specialist at the Lake Worth campus and a certified health fitness specialist through the American College of Sports Medicine.

Becker launched a Lecture and Lunch series in fall 2011 for students and employees covering such topics as nutrition, weight management, stress management, heart disease, eating disorders and vegetarianism. She often taps the expertise of the College’s own faculty and staff who serve as presenters. As an incentive for attendance, those who stay until the end of the session receive free lunch.

She and her counterparts are now part of a new wellness cluster at the College, which means they collaborate more to bring consistency to the services at the various Wellness Centers.

All of the campuses are seeing an increase in usage. “In a given day, we have 100 people use the facility – students, faculty and staff,’’ said Lindsey Swann, wellness center specialist at the Palm Beach Gardens campus. She noted that 3,230 people have signed up to use the facility since it opened in 2007 in the new state-of-the- art BioScience Technology Complex. “We’ve had a nice increase over the semesters. We can see it trending up.”

The Wellness Center in Palm Beach Gardens offers a Track Your Fitness program, in which participants can get body composition measurements and sit up, push up and flexibility testing, so that they can track their success. Participants in the program also are encouraged to participate in the center’s instructor-led, 30-minute classes, including Core-Conditioning, Stretching and Strengthening, Working out with Resistance Bands and Shaping up with the Swiss Ball. “For those who don’t enjoy a gym environment, we’re trying to offer alternatives. We’re trying to offer something for everyone,’’ Swann said.

In Lake Worth, students, faculty and staff used the fitness center 16,937 times in 2011 compared to 10,948 in 2009. The Belle Glade campus also has seen a spike in users at its Wellness Center in the new Education and Training Center that opened in 2010.

“I love it because it’s free, and I can come right after classes if I need to,’’ student Samantha Shelton said while walking on the treadmill.  Although she normally works out at the Wellness Center in Lake Worth, which is closer to home, she said she likes having the flexibility to visit the centers on other campuses, particularly since she works as a student ambassador at the Boca Raton campus and takes classes at various campuses to fit her schedule.

While personal training is not available, staff at the Wellness Centers help ensure those using the facilities are on the right track.

“If someone has a question, we will go in there and make sure they’re doing things correctly or tell them about workouts for various body parts,” said Oren Monroe, a wellness center assistant at the Lake Worth campus who teaches free Latin dance classes for students, faculty and staff.

It’s not just the staff at the Wellness Centers who have focused on health. The Office of Human Resources at Palm Beach State introduced the College’s health insurance carrier’s ready-made program called BlueRewards last year that offers gift cards to employees who participate in health assessments including blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol screenings and track their progress in these and other areas.

“Those are indicators of your chances of developing major illnesses,’’ said Melissa Solla, human resources generalist who oversees Florida Blue’s BlueRewards program at the College. “It saves us money in the long run if everybody’s healthy.”

“All the research shows that from an HR perspective, health is critical in the workplace, and we’re going to make every effort to ensure our employees are healthy,’’ said Dr. Ellen Grace, executive director of human resources, safety and risk management.

Employees said they appreciate the College’s emphasis on preventative health initiatives.

“If we’re all doing well and healthy, we’re going to do better at our jobs,’’ Leona Smith, finance department specialist, said after participating with about 30 others in a session called “Emotional Eating: Mood and Food” in April. The workshop was presented by Corporate Care Works, the provider of the College’s Employee Assistance Program.

“I think it’s wonderful that we’re being proactive about our employees’ health,” Velez said.