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Copyright 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico)

 

Workplace programs are increasingly using technology, social media and mind-body techniques to encourage employees to adopt healthy lifestyles.

Wearable gadgets like Fitbits that track movement, teams that communicate via Facebook, coaching on nutrition and sessions that combine meditation with high-intensity-training are all part of the new wave of workplace wellness programs.

"Companies are looking for a magic bullet to make a difference and reduce health insurance costs," says Susie MacLean, executive director of the Solutions Group.

MacLean has been creating workplace wellness programs since the early 1990s. In recent years, she says, the focus has shifted toward creating a culture of wellness that embraces the whole person both physically and mentally. Her company was acquired by Presbyterian Healthcare Services in 2013 and she has tested programs that incorporate the new trends with Presbyterian employees.

"People spend more time at work than at home with their families so if we don't create a healthy environment we're missing the mark," MacLean says.

She says it's important for a company to keep its wellness programs "fresh" so that employees won't get bored and be tempted to drop out.

Wearable technology that can track physical exercise has proved a popular innovation. Creating teams that can share their daily and weekly result through social media provides friendly competition that keeps employees engaged.

Employers are also rethinking the traditional workspace as new research has shown the long-term health risks of sitting at a desk all day.

"We used to think smoking was the biggest risk. Now we realize sitting is a risk. We're seeing lots of employees who have problems with their hips. So many organizations are setting up work environments where employees can stand," MacLean says.

She says some workplaces have even instituted "walking" meetings to encourage people to move instead of sitting.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is another concept taking hold in wellness programs. Many new programs feature a meditation component.

"We're seeing an increase in employee and employer understanding of how critical it is to bring the mind into the equation of wellness," says Michelle DuVal, owner and director of The Mindful Center.

Until recently, such programs concentrated solely on physical health, focusing on exercise and nutrition. A person's mental state was considered the realm of therapists or psychologists, she says. People are starting to realize that their state of mind influences everything they do, from work to eating and exercise habits.

"If you can reduce mental stress other pieces of the puzzle fall into place. It makes a heck of a lot of sense," DuVal says.

The engineering firm Chavez Grieves is one of her clients. Company CEO Chris Youngblood says he introduced wellness programs in his workplace a decade ago to help create a positive work environment. The programs focused on helping employees achieve financial, physical and emotional wellbeing. He is enthusiastic about the benefits of adding a mindfulness component to his programs.

"It has an amazing effect of reducing stress," Youngblood says.

Interval training

DuVal has developed a new program exercise physiologist Jose Maresma calls "Calm and Strong," which pairs meditation with HIIT or high intensity interval training.

HIIT, a new trend in physical exercise, mixes short bursts of intense activity with periods of less intense activity or rest, which is supposed to boost athletic performance and weight loss more quickly than traditional cardio workouts.

Maresma says studies have shown that the health benefits of meditation can mimic those of exercise. Combining the two elements amplifies the benefits.

"Mindfulness improves attention, focus and reduces stress. Mixing that with intense exercise amplifies the overall effect," he says.

They started offering the six-week Calm and Strong program at the Presbyterian Healthplex in 2016 and they are currently in discussions about offering it at other locations, Maresma says.

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