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Healthcare Workers Should Lead the Wellness Movement

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, June 15, 2009

Look through the classified ads in your local newspaper, on eBay, or Craig's List, and you'll find someone selling a Bowflex or a treadmill that's "still in the box." There's usually a brief note tagged on saying something like: "I bought this last year and never had time to use it."

This "still in the box" mentality in our consumer culture holds that if you simply purchase a tread mill, a weight set, a stationary bicycle, or a gym membership, you will get the results you want, regardless of whether you actually use it.

It sounds irrational, and it is. But it's also true. If you're a regular at a gym, you know the New Year's resolution crowd thins out by March, but most of them are probably still paying their monthly dues. How many dieters begin with ironclad determination to gain six-pack abs, only to lose heart after a few weeks? These are good people who start out with sincere intentions—they want to eat healthier food, they want to lose weight, they want to exercise—but things happen, life gets in the way, and they drop out, feeling discouraged.

Still in the box is a defeatist attitude that good wellness programs can help overcome by getting people to recognize that good health can't be purchased, but it can be gained with lifestyle modification. Wellness coaches talk about setting attainable goals for employees, like moderate diet adjustments, and moderate exercise, and backing up those goals with incentives like reduced health insurance premiums, or recognition from fellow workers, which pique interest and encourage slow, healthy change. It'd be great to run a marathon, but let's start with a half-mile walk and build from there. It'd be great to lose 40 pounds, but let's begin with some minor diet modifications and see what happens.

Slow, steady healthy behaviors—measured by attainable goals, encouraged by positive feedback and cost-effective incentives, are exactly what Americans needs to adopt.

Hospital employees who've successfully undergone wellness training can provide an excellent example to their families, friends, and neighbors in their communities. Think about it. Hospitals are among the largest employers in most communities, where hospital employees are held in high regard. Slimmed-down, tobacco-free, and healthy feeling hospital workers could fan out into their communities and spread—by example—the gospel of wellness to family, friends, and neighbors. The positive repercussions could be enormous.

Nobody wants poor health. Last week, a new poll found that Americans want whatever healthcare reforms emerge in the coming months to invest in disease prevention more than for treatment. The poll of 1,014 registered voters, conducted by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that 70% of Americans gave investing in prevention between an eight and 10 on a scale of zero to 10, where 10 means very important.

"This poll shows the American public strongly believes it's time we shift from a sick care system to a true healthcare system that stresses disease prevention," says Jeff Levi, executive director of the nonprofit TFAH.

That may be true, but will that be enough to promote change? Americans talk up the idea of disease prevention but they don't practice what they preach. The CDC reports that 27% of Americans are obese, and that trend isn't slowing.

Partners for Prevention estimates that more than 117,000 lives could be saved each year if Americans would follow simple prevention steps such as cancer screenings, quitting smoking, or even taking one aspirin daily to prevent heart disease.

Developing healthy habits means slowly changing behaviors that have been learned over decades. That's a lesson that tens of thousands of America's hospital employees have already learned in their wellness programs. Now it's time for them to share their knowledge with their communities.


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John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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