UI sees wellness push pay off

Fewer students say they are obese than those at ISU, UNI

University of Iowa junior Michael Timm of Colfax works out at the UI Campus Recreation and Wellness Center Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)
University of Iowa junior Michael Timm of Colfax works out at the UI Campus Recreation and Wellness Center Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

IOWA CITY —  University of Iowa wellness programs cost about $120 per employee and about $15 per student annually, an investment officials say has paid off in fewer sick days, lower insurance costs and some reduced harmful behaviors among students.

Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa officials say they also monitor the impact of wellness programs on student behaviors, but don’t have as much data on employee programs, something they hope to change as they work to expand those initiatives.

Officials on all three campuses said wellness programs — with myriad offerings focused on fitness, healthy eating, smoking cessation, weight management, stress management, sleeping habits and alcohol use — can result in happier and more productive employees and students and save money through insurance cost containment or reduction.

“We’re moving the dial in terms of people decreasing the number of risk factors they have,” said Joni Troester, UI director of health and productivity, who oversees employee wellness. “We’re having an impact on our absenteeism rates, we believe we’re having an impact on some of our health care utilization rates, really creating this culture of health.”

UI in 2006 launched LiveWell, which provides programs to employees like health coaching and online lifestyle management. Of the benefits-eligible population — about 16,500 employees — about 70 percent completed a personal health assessment in 2011.

The data shows UI employees in the “high risk” category have decreased between 2008 and 2012, while employees in the “low risk” category increased. That’s important in part because employees in the high risk category use much more sick leave annually, Troester said. Another recent analysis showed employees who participated in the program for at least three years had about $200 less in health care costs annually, compared to employees who didn’t participate, she said.

ISU and UNI officials said they hope to see similar results as they ramp up employee wellness offerings.

Iowa State this year hired a consultant, at a cost of just more than $100,000, to help put together a menu of options that includes existing resources but also designs university health plans to encourage more preventive care, said Associate Vice President for Human Resource Services David Trainor. Officials want to offer incentives for employees who use wellness programs “because we think those incentives will come back to us in cheaper health care costs over the long run,” he said.

Gathering more data also will help show why the programs — and their associated costs — are beneficial, said Bobbi Vandegrift, employee benefits and wellness coordinator at UNI, where there is a push to get employees more engaged in wellness.

“But it’s not just purely 100 percent for the bottom line — morale is another big reason,” she said.

Many of the university offerings for employees are similar to those for students, though all three schools have separate units that oversee student wellness and employee wellness.

UI, ISU and UNI all take part in the National College Health Assessment, a survey that monitors student behavior regarding physical activity, eating, drinking, drug use and sex. The most recent assessment showed the number of students who identified as overweight or obese was 28 percent at UI, 35 percent at ISU and 34 percent at UNI.

Health Iowa, the student wellness arm at UI, offers free fitness testing and health consultations. Coltin Hoguet recently decided to take advantage of those offerings, to make sure he was staying on track with his goals. He didn’t realize the services were available until he asked a personal trainer at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center about body fat testing.

“I was trying to up my training, and I just wanted to see if the assessment would tell me I’m doing it right, and it all did,” Hoguet, 25, said. “It made me feel a million times better.”

The Ottumwa native has been diligent about his exercise and eating habits since slimming down after a 2009 gastric bypass surgery, when he weighed 551 pounds. A transfer student in fine arts who enrolled at the UI this fall, Hoguet works out at the rec center every day, and he said the facilities and numerous wellness programs are a great thing for students, who may have a tendency to slack on health goals.

“You can come in and use these programs when you want,” he said. “It’s very important.”

Health Iowa had about 25,000 student contacts last year through education and one-on-one counseling, said Tanya Villhauer, associate director for education at the UI Student Health center. Using last year’s enrollment of just under 31,000, $14.96 was spent per student on the programs, funded by the student health fee and clinic revenues, she said.

At UNI, student wellness and recreation center usage had been steadily increasing until a slight dip in 2011-12, likely because of an enrollment decline, said Kathy Green, director of University Health Services. UNI had 8,676 unique student users of wellness and recreation last year, more than 65 percent of the population, she said.

Addressing alcohol use is a big part of student wellness initiatives on the three campuses, officials said. At ISU, an overhaul of the wellness offerings through Student Health resulted in a new Prevention Services unit, which focuses solely on high-risk drinking and sexual misconduct education. The other wellness-type offerings in the areas of fitness, healthy eating and counseling are handling through other departments.

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