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United Methodists lose pounds, gain health


7:00 P.M. EST August 13, 2010

Rhonda Manous exercises in the Witness to Fitness program. Photo: Janice Hamelburg, GCFA.
Rhonda Manous exercises in the Witness to Fitness program. Photo: Janice Hamelburg, GCFA.

Eighteen months ago, the Rev. Mark Del Giudice and his wife, I Hyong “Song,” were overweight, had Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, took several medications and needed frequent physician visits.

Then they heard about the Virgin HealthMiles physical activity program, which the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits was piloting.

Excited about the opportunity, the New York couple completed a health-fitness questionnaire.

“We discovered that we were both in a fitness category just above ‘fair health.’ It gave us a wakeup call,” recalled Del Giudice, who serves Bloomville and Walton United Methodist churches.

“In 18 months,” he said, “I have lost 90 pounds, taken 14 inches off my waist, lowered my blood pressure and sugar to an acceptable range, eliminated the use of medications, and now I only need to see my physician once a year for a wellness exam. Song has lost 61 pounds, 10 inches off her waist, reduced her prescription meds and only needs to see her physician on a six-month follow-up basis.”

In January 2009, the pension board’s Center for Health introduced the program to annual (regional) conferences and employer groups that sponsor the HealthFlex insurance plan. In 2010, the program expanded to include any United Methodist conference that wanted to offer it.

“To date, more than 12,000 clergy and lay participants from 36 annual conferences and three employer groups are enrolled in HealthMiles — a 43-percent participation rate,” noted Kelly Piepenbrink, health and wellness program manager.

“Data suggests a correlation between involvement at a higher level with the program and lower health risks,” she added.

‘Do-able and fun to do’

With HealthMiles, participants receive pedometers to track their activity. Via a USB cord, they upload the data to the program’s website. Participants can earn rewards (up to $300 in 12 months). Articles and other encouragement provide additional support.

Rewards are contingent upon individual achievement, but groups of individuals or annual conferences can challenge each other to “step-offs.” At least once a year, a group challenge shows participants how they stack up against other annual conferences and plan sponsors in the church.

For HealthFlex participants, HealthMiles works hand-in-glove with other program offerings to support overall wellness. The WebMD HealthQuotient assessment raises awareness of health risks, and health coaching helps participants address those risks. Biometric screenings and wellness exams focus on prevention, early detection and treatment, and HealthMiles promotes increased activity as a means to improve participant health.

Witness to Fitness participants enjoy exercising. Photo: Janice Hamelburg, GCFA.
Witness to Fitness participants enjoy exercising. Photo: Janice Hamelburg, GCFA.

HealthMiles success also is driven by participants’ enjoyment and, more importantly, by results.

“It is not only do-able, but (also) is fun to do,” said Del Giudice. The couple looks forward to their walks and fun competitions, he admitted.

“We have saved time and money and, more importantly, we have improved our overall fitness.”

Taking a similar tack, staff at several United Methodist agencies in Nashville, Tenn., along with four bishops, jumped on the treadmill for “Witness to Fitness” (W2F). The 12-week competition involved 184 people eager to quit grabbing a fast-food burger and fries and calling it a meal.

Almost 40 percent of the staff of participating organizations signed up to compete in the W2F Team Challenge. For the competition, they broke into 46 cleverly named teams. While weight loss was not the emphasis, 36 teams reported losing 662.9 pounds collectively.

Team members reported lower cholesterol, higher energy and a newfound commitment to health. Even participants who regularly exercise reported they were able to “take it up a notch” when given the support of team members.

‘Taking global health seriously’

W2F encourages friendly competition and counts on team member support.

The teams used a point system based on steps taken, water consumption, exercise, healthy eating and sleeping habits, dental care and vitamin use. The three teams with the highest points received awards. First prize was a one-time $200 reduction of participants’ health-care premium.

A quartet of bishops — Thomas Bickerton, Sally Dyck, John Hopkins and John Schol — got on board the “Sag Wagon.” “The Defiant Ones” was a cross-agency team. Members of both teams travel extensively, yet found creative ways to maintain established walking and exercise routines.

The Rev. Mark Del Giudice, and his wife I Hyong “Song,” have improved their overall fitness. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church, Walton, NY.
The Rev. Mark Del Giudice, and his wife I Hyong “Song,” have improved their overall fitness. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church, Walton, NY.

“This idea will work anywhere — in local churches, districts or annual conferences,” said Rhonda Manous, United Methodist benefits administrator. “It’s really very simple.”

The only essentials are a budget for prizes and an event coordinator to enroll participants, send motivational e-mails and track weekly team logs. 

The team concept, which was at the very core of W2F, almost guaranteed success. “Time after time, contestants reported they would have quit,” Manous said, but they did not want to disappoint their teammates.

Incorporating wellness and exercise into our lives is also a step toward reducing medical claim costs, she noted.

For the remainder of the year, she said, W2F will focus more on the clinical side.

During a fall health fair, employees will be able to give blood samples to trained medical personnel, who can detect signs of possible conditions like diabetes and recommend measures to prevent the condition from becoming chronic.

The program serves a serious purpose, but it is also fun, Manous concluded.

“What a great way to attract people to The United Methodist Church — to show them how to glorify the Lord, have fun and improve personal health,” she said. “Through W2F, we show the world that we are taking global health seriously, starting at home.”

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications. Nies is managing director of communications for the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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