Fitness Program Is Off and Running in L.B. School District

Times Staff Writer

In the offices of the Long Beach Unified School District, running shoes have begun appearing under desks.

Instead of lingering over second cups of coffee, some district employees now walk briskly through downtown Long Beach during their lunch hour.

Support groups have sprung up at several schools for teachers, cafeteria workers and other staff members who are trying to lose weight. At one school, employees regularly meet before classes for an early morning run. The pool at Polytechnic High School has been made available three times a week to staffers who want to swim laps.

The districtwide interest in fitness is no accident.

Long Beach Unified began offering its employees a personalized fitness program as part of the district's benefit package for this school year. Following the example of private industry, where fitness and health programs are an increasingly popular "perk," the school district has budgeted $200,000 this year (including much of its California Lottery money) for a "wellness" program for its 4,500 employees.

Children Benefit, Too

"We want the maximum performance from every employee, and a fit employee is a far more productive employee than one with health problems," Assistant Supt. of Schools Helen Z. Hansen said. According to Hansen, the district believes that the children in the schools will ultimately benefit from the increased health and fitness of the staff. "That's the bottom line," she said.

The ABC Unified School District in Cerritos has had a fitness and health program for its staff, including a fitness center at Carmenita Junior High School, since the 1984-85 school year. According to coordinator Pam Graham, "the whole premise of our program is that if employees become healthier, eventually that will filter down to the children." Graham said that the ABC district had not yet been able to determine whether the program has paid off in terms of reduced absenteeism, for example. But she said she believes it has enhanced job satisfaction among district employees.

Las Virgenes Unified School District in Westlake Village had a pilot fitness program last year. According to Donald Zimring, the district's assistant superintendent for business, the fitness program was very popular, but employees opted for a salary increase rather than continued funding of the program.

In Long Beach, almost 1,500 employees will have participated in the program by the end of the school year. Alison E. Vieri, the district's personnel physician, said employees actually have a choice of two programs, one administered by Fitness Appraisal Inc. of San Diego and one run by John Gregory Smith, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Long Beach City College.

First Step

In both programs, employees begin by having a blood sample drawn and analyzed for cholesterol levels and other factors.

Participants being tested by Fitness Appraisal pay $20 to cover laboratory costs, the only fee they pay. The program costs the district about $150 a person. (Fitness Appraisal has worked with the majority of staff members, according to Vieri.) Participants also keep track of what they eat and drink over three days so their eating habits can be evaluated.

The next step is a personalized fitness appraisal conducted at the employee's school or office. It takes about an hour. The evaluation, which is done by exercise physiologists, includes an estimate of how much body fat an individual has and tests of the individual's blood pressure, heart rate and heart rhythm while he or she is pedaling a stationary bicycle.

The participant is given a computer printout comparing his or her weight, diet and performance on various tests to ideal standards.

On the basis of the individual's results, the evaluators make specific recommendations about altering diet and exercise habits. Recommendations for exercise take into account the activities that the individual has indicated he or she likes. Jogging is not recommended for people who would rather swim. Age and health are taken into consideration, and more regular, less intense exercise is recommended for participants who are arthritic or obese, for example.

College Makes No Profit

In Smith's program at Long Beach City College there is no charge for the initial blood test. Smith said this is possible because the City College program makes no profit and costs the district only about $95 per person. The college-based program includes somewhat different tests, including a computerized analysis of the health implications of an individual's diet, exercise and other aspects of his or her life style.

The City College program also has opportunities for exercise built into it, Smith said. Participants can use the 12 exercise bicycles and other amenities of the Human Performance Laboratory on campus. These include a personal stereo that allows the person exercising to listen to music or a book-on-tape and a television set with a 52-inch screen. "We have things in there so people can do something besides sit on an Exercycle and look at the wall," Smith said.

The City College program also offers weekly exercise and stress-reduction classes and the services of a nutritionist at no cost to the participants. They also are given an identification card that allows them to participate at no cost in physical education courses on campus. If staff members prefer to work out elsewhere, Smith will perform a computerized analysis of the health benefits of any activities they report to him.

Results Kept Confidential

All results of both programs are strictly confidential. No information is given to the school district about how an individual performs on the various tests. "That was one of the big fears, that somehow your supervisor would know and you would lose your job," Vieri noted.

Susan M. Murphy, who runs the Long Beach program for Fitness Appraisal, also noted that the evaluation does not include a test for AIDS.

Many participants say they decided to take part because the price was right, and they appreciated the personalized nature of the appraisal. Participants in the Fitness Appraisal program said they liked the convenience of being evaluated at their workplace.

Bonnie Weiss, who was interviewed during her evaluation at Herbert Hoover Junior High School in Lakewood, teaches Spanish and English as a second language. About 80% of the Hoover staff signed up for the program, including Principal George M. Whitmore.

Eating Changes Suggested

Weiss said her health is generally good but she fears she does not exercise enough. "The most exercise I get is walking around school and running up and down the stairs at my house," she said.

The physiologists suggested several changes in Weiss's life style, including eating less protein and fat and more complex carbohydrates. They also advised that she do more of the walking and swimming she said she enjoys.

In four to six months, Weiss, like other participants, will be reevaluated.

According to Murphy, the prospect of a reevaluation often motivates participants to stick to their resolutions to diet and exercise.

"You are kind of ashamed if you haven't improved," said district spokesman Richard Van Der Laan, who has been swimming three times a week at the YMCA since his evaluation.

Follow-up also includes distribution of newsletters warning participants against fitness pitfalls such as saturated vegetable fats (coconut oil, for example).

Prevention of Heart Disease

According to Murphy, the district wellness program is designed to increase general fitness, including flexibility and the ability to avoid lower back injury. But its major thrust is the prevention of coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. The exercise physiologists who do the evaluations are not physicians. They advise participants to see their doctors if the tests seem to warrant it and give participants a summary of their findings to take along.

Last year, during a pilot program in the district, the evaluators told Connie West, a secretary at Will J. Reid High School, that her bike test had suggested the presence of an abnormality involving her heart. They advised her to see her doctor before she embarked on any further exercise program.

West, who has worked for the district for 32 years, believes the wellness program saved her life. West, a Long Beach resident, said that she has had a physician's examination every year for years, but that she had never before been evaluated while she was exercising, as she was in the wellness program's bike test.

Surgery Was Successful

Alerted by a letter from West's fitness evaluators, her physician gave her a treadmill test and other tests and discovered that she had a potentially life-threatening blockage of her left coronary artery. This summer she had successful quadruple bypass surgery. Instead of giving her flowers or candy, some of her district friends gave her exercise clothes as a get-well gift, she said.

West's experience, which she allowed to be reported in the district newsletter, was an enormous boost to the district fitness program.

"When my case was brought to light, I think everyone realized how useful the program could be," West said.

According to Hansen, the district eventually hopes to collect comparative data on participants and non-participants in terms of absenteeism and health-care costs. Meanwhile, the district believes that the program has already been worth its cost, both in terms of enhanced performance on the part of participants and such unanticipated benefits as heightened morale. Hansen said that she believes a program like this can only help individuals in a high-stress field such as public education.

A Sense of Caring

According to district officials, the response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive. A sense that the district cares about the individual employee's welfare is one important consequence.

Like many of his colleagues, Van Der Laan said he feels more energetic since participating in the program than he has for years.

Eventually, the district hopes every employee will sign up.

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