Health & Wellness
Atlantas Superheroes of Wellness

Atlantas Superheroes of Wellness

by Amy Meadows

They may not wear capes, but they’re superheroes just the same. Their mission: to help the public at large improve their health and well being. Their archenemies: poor eating habits, lack of exercise and general apathy toward health. Their special powers: the ability to lead by example and encourage those around them to see nutrition and fitness in an entirely new light. They are bastions of health and wellness in metro Atlanta, serving their communities by protecting local residents from infirmity and lethargy. As with all superheroes, they understand that with great power comes great responsibility, and they’ll continue to fight until the battle is won.

Greg White: Decatur’s Defender of Wellness

IMG_1204It’s not unusual to see Greg White riding his bicycle through the streets of Decatur, heading to a meeting or bound for a visit to a local park. A former athlete, he has always been a sporty individual who not only enjoys the energy that’s released during physical activity, but also relishes the opportunity to share his enthusiasm for health and wellness with others. “Wellness contributes to your mind, body and soul. I’m passionate about wellness because you feel better and are able to make sound decisions when you exercise,” says White, 49. “And when you look at the cost of medicines and health issues in this country, you see that we have to make a turnaround—a healthy lifestyle is the key.”

With that keen understanding, it’s no surprise that White delights in his role as the director of Decatur Active Living, formerly known as the Decatur Recreation and Community Services Department. The idea for the program was conceived in 2007 as the city went through a strategic planning initiative, and Peggy Merriss, Decatur’s City Manager, who is an avid tennis player, championed its implementation, as well as the recreation department’s name change to Active Living. “Active Living incorporates our traditional recreation and sports activities into a new, broader program that will coordinate existing efforts and develop new opportunities to encourage citizens to lead healthy and active lives,” White says. The program is designed to benefit residents of all ages, from children to active adults, and one of its central goals is to bring families, including dogs, together to increase their health and wellness-related activities.

Offering a wide array of programming is key for Decatur Active Living, which is dedicated to providing active and support services that contribute to the quality of life of the citizens of Decatur. Using resources like the community’s recently improved green spaces, gardens, pools and parks, as well as by developing partnerships with local health and fitness organizations, the program gives residents access to a wide range of classes, group activities, recreational options and much more. Decatur Active Living also has increased cycling opportunities throughout the city and established a very successful Safe Routes to School program, which White has coordinated for the last 2 years, to encourage parents and students to get exercise in the morning and the afternoon by walking to school. Through the Safe Routes to School program, Decatur Active Living has partnered with four elementary schools and provided bike training for 250 fourth graders. What’s more, White and his team have placed great emphasis on bringing active adults, or seniors, into the fitness fold as well. “Communities are beginning to ask themselves how they can keep seniors in the community and create an infrastructure so they can exercise,” White says. “We truly have focused on providing active adults with a range of opportunities to exercise, using things like aerobics, line dancing and African dancing as tools.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Cheryl Burnette, Decatur Active Living’s new assistant director, has spearheaded a plan to encourage community residents in all age groups to participate in the Kaiser Permanente Corporate Run/Walk on Sept. 16. “The City of Decatur is the first to take this on and promote the event citywide,” White says.
It’s clear to see why Decatur Active Living has become a national model for highly effective city-based wellness programs. “Decatur Active Living is an anchor in our community. We connect people and places,” White concludes. “People need to be educated about the benefits of wellness. The No. 1 thing people can do is to take some small steps that will lead to a healthy lifestyle. And in the end, everyone can be a role model that impacts others.”

Superhero Motto: Words to Live By
“Wellness needs to be a part of your everyday routine. So do something like walk to a meeting or provide healthy snacks at your place of work.”
—Greg White

Linda Matzigkeit: Wellness Champion of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

IMG_1280Globally, hospitals and healthcare organizations tend to have a large percentage of unhealthy employees. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, North Georgia’s premier pediatric care organization, did not want to fall into that unsettling category. So, in 2008, the nonprofit organization launched the Strong4Life program, an initiative that is designed to help employees achieve their personal wellness goals while creating a healthier workforce to care for metro Atlanta’s rapidly growing pediatric population. And Children’s found the perfect person to oversee the ambitious organization-wide effort: Linda Matzigkeit.

“Healthcare is our business, and creating a healthy workforce for Georgia’s pediatric population is a priority. As members of the healthcare industry, we believe it is our responsibility to serve as role models for our patients and their families while creating a culture of wellness that improves our employees’ overall health,” says Matzigkeit, 43, who serves as director of Strong4Life. “I take being a role model for wellness very seriously and lead by example through my nutrition and exercise regimen. In the last year alone, I have completed five triathlons, five half marathons and multiple 10K and trail run races. I believe that all of our leadership should literally and figuratively walk the walk on wellness.”

To help the more than 7,500 employees across the Children’s network follow in the footsteps of leaders like Matzigkeit, the Strong4Life program offers them access to a myriad of resources, beginning with wellness fairs that take place each year. In addition, Matzigkeit reveals, Strong4Life provides employees with the opportunity to complete a health profile that includes body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage, blood pressure and cholesterol screenings, as well as the chance to complete a Health Risk Assessment (HRA). Once these screenings and assessments have been done, employees can sign up for a number of programs, including YOU4Life, a customized healthy lifestyle management program that offers access to weekly classes conducted by a fitness trainer, meetings with a nutritionist, ongoing coaching and onsite exercise programs. And every program that falls under the Strong4Life banner was developed with a core philosophy in mind.

“Most wellness programs are based solely on changing habits around nutrition and activity,” Matzigkeit notes. “What makes Strong4Life unique is that we also have two other key focus areas: fun and support.” From having onsite massage therapy available and allowing for more flexible scheduling options to offering Weight Watchers at Work, smoking cessation tools and working parent resources, the Strong4Life program ensures that employees reduce the amount of stress in their lives while being able to learn as much as possible about living a healthy lifestyle. And the results speak for themselves. Collectively, Children’s employees have lost more than 25,000 pounds and logged more than 1 billion steps on their pedometers. What’s more, many employees have been able to stop taking prescribed medications for hypertension and diabetes. And all of this news is not only good for the employees themselves, but also for Children’s, which expects to see a return on investment through increased employee engagement and reduced healthcare spending over the next 2 to 3 years. The organization also anticipates an excellent employee turnout at the Kaiser Permanente Corporate Run/Walk.

Of course, the most significant victory of the Strong4Life program is what it will do for future generations in metro Atlanta, especially in regards to the ever-growing obesity epidemic. As Matzigkeit maintains, “Our kids need us to be role models—not just parents, but all of us. Children need to be able to look at all adults in their lives—moms, dads, aunts, doctors, teachers and nurses—and see active healthy people. Reshaping how we look at food and activity is going to be fundamental in combating this crisis. And as healthcare organizations, we should really be at the forefront of this movement.”

Superhero Motto: Words to Live By
“Wellness is the key to finding success in all areas of life, from on the job to personal happiness and achievement.”
—Linda Matzigkeit

Steve Needle: Guardian of Good Health

IMG_1237The McCart Group, one of the region’s leading professional services firms in designing and monitoring corporate and individual risk management and asset protection programs, knows a thing or two about wellness programs. In fact, the firm has promoted and facilitated extensive wellness and health management programs for many of its clients over the years. However, it wasn’t until early in 2010 that the company’s management team decided it was time to apply that same level of effort right at home.

“Not only did we feel the need to walk the walk, but we also wanted to provide employees with an opportunity to engage in activities that promote their personal well being,” says Steve Needle, 47, director of The McCart Group’s internal wellness program. “We wanted to educate and help everyone understand the wellness and fitness components that go into a healthy lifestyle and work-life balance. We believed that our group not only would reap the physical benefits of these types of programs, but also would actually enjoy participating.”

Therefore, Needle and the McCart management team joined forces with Kaiser Permanente, the firm’s group medical insurance provider, to develop a formal and sustained wellness program that concentrated on three key areas: group exercise, massage therapy and nutrition education. Together, the companies implemented an initial 6-month program at McCart that included biometric screenings and health assessments at the beginning and end of the period, for which participants received $25 gift cards, as well as group classes and wellness-related activities that focused on the health issues identified in the initial health assessments. The group classes and activities, many of which were facilitated by Kaiser Permanente, were offered after work, during lunch-and-learn sessions and at other optimal times so that all employees could take advantage of the beneficial resources. And right away, the reaction to the venture was clear.

“Immediately, we saw an excitement among many employees and an eagerness to participate and learn more,” Needle explains. “A number of people expressed appreciation for the company’s acknowledgement of the fact that, for many, health and well being is equally as important as day-to-day job responsibilities. Implementing this type of program showed that employee health is important to management and the company as a whole.”

Feeling genuinely supported, The McCart Group’s employees forged ahead, striving to reach their personal health and wellness goals. Many have lost significant amounts of weight, while others have made long-lasting changes in their nutritional and exercise habits. And there is no doubt that they took their cue from the program’s director. Needle and his entire family changed their food purchases and meal plans and began exercising regularly. “Besides feeling better and being more productive at work, our employees feel that the benefit of this program has extended to their families too,” Needle says. “Their healthy choices are impacting the diet and exercise routines within their households.”

While some of the goals of the program included sustaining a lower health insurance claim trend in the future and decreasing absenteeism and “presenteeism,” there has been another welcome outcome of the initiative. “Midterm results have shown an increase in morale and team cohesiveness, especially in the group of employees who frequent the exercise classes and even set up lunch hour walks and regularly scheduled video training classes with a live trainer to keep the momentum going,” Needle asserts. “We hoped the program would become a team-building exercise, and in many ways, it has.”

While the results of the 6-month followup screenings and assessments are not yet available, the success of The McCart Group’s internal wellness program is obvious. And the favorable reaction from employees has encouraged the management team to continue the program, keeping the team engaged and the activities relevant to its needs. “Although we work in a fast-paced, stressful occupation, we feel that we have helped our team learn how to cope better and build a foundation of better health outcomes,” Needle concludes. “I feel that, overall, a wellness program is one of the most productive and worthwhile endeavors a group can tackle as a company initiative.”

Superhero Motto: Words to Live By
“Change the perception of the food you put in your body. Eat to live healthfully—don’t live to eat!” 
—Steve Needle