Exercise regimen gets HHS employees moving

When Mark Delowery heard a Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association executive describe a walking program corporations use to encourage employees to exercise more, he wanted to apply it to federal employees.

As a doctor and director of clinical services for the Health and Human Services Department's Federal Occupational Health unit, Delowery's job is to keep federal employees healthy. And as the largest health insurer of federal employees, BCBS decided to help him.

In May, BCBS and FOH launched a pilot walking program for federal employees in Washington and Rockville, Md. About 3,600 HHS employees -- twice the number organizers had expected -- started wearing pedometers to log the distance they walked and entering that information online. Employees also go on lunchtime walks together.

Delowery said that he's concerned about increasing rates of obesity and diabetes, and thinks government workers may be at particular risk. "Many federal employees have office work-type jobs. They're sedentary. It makes it harder to implement physical activity every day," he said.

Indeed, participants say incorporating exercise into their everyday schedule is what makes the program appealing.

"They like the fact that they can count what they do all day long," said Elaine Fox, an occupational health nurse at FOH in Rockville and team captain for her office group. She said she thinks people are more likely to take the stairs at Metro stations or at work instead of the elevator if they know their steps will be counted.

Falecia Smith, 29, a public health analyst at HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration and walker with the Rockville group, said walking at lunchtime also boosts productivity. "Your adrenaline is up a little bit, and you're more inclined to get more work done," she said.

Smith walks up to 2.5 miles during her lunch break and recently started meeting colleagues on the weekend to walk as well. She said when the weather is extreme, as it is now, the walking group struts around HRSA's 18-floor building or in its parking garages.

In an effort to boost motivation, FOH has organized a competition between employees in the Washington and Rockville offices. During a 10-week period, which ends in July, each group competes for collectively walking the farthest. So far, both groups have recorded more than 13,000 miles.

Delowery said FOH plans to expand the walking program to other offices in other parts of the country within the year. He also said exercising at work probably encourages more physical activity outside of office hours.

Research supports that claim: In May, BCBS released a survey that found that most Americans said they wanted to get more exercise, but 70 percent said they didn't have enough time. It also found that employees with an at-work fitness program were more likely to regularly work out.

Employees on Capitol Hill, including members of Congress, have participated in an annual walking contest for the past three years.

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