At 170 pounds, Jacinda Jones is half the woman she used to be.
“I’d managed to get up to 350, actually I don’t know the exact weight because my scale would not measure my weight," said Jones.
Two years ago, this Bowling Green wife and mother was a size 28. She lived on fast food and was an admitted couch potato.
“I ate out a lot and it would be a salad, bread, the entrée, and dessert. It would be all of it," Jones confessed. "When I got fast food, it would be chicken fingers and fries. It was just a free for all. There was no exercise.”
Jacinda had experienced weight problems since her youth, but her life changing moment came on an airplane in 2010.
“I had went to Vegas, and the seat belt buckle wouldn’t and I was too embarrassed to ask for the extender," she said.
Following the trip, she began thinking about gastric bypass surgery.
“My mom told me I needed to have the surgery, and I was so scared of surgery, I told her to give me one more shot to do this, and I told her if it fails this time, I will have the surgery," remarked Jones.
At 32 years old, Jacinda was obese and pre-diabetic. She had high blood pressure and no energy.
“I also developed what’s called benign intracranial hypertension. It’s where my body either doesn’t get rid of or makes too much spinal fluid because of my weight," she explained. "It would give me headaches because I had too much pressure on my spine, and it also pushed on my optic nerves and I could have gone blind. I went to an opthamologist and he said you’ve got to lose weight.”
And then she turned to an unexpected place: her job. Jacinda works as a claims specialist for Progressive Insurance in the company’s Bowling Green office. She began taking advantage of the company’s employee wellness program called Healthy U.
Progressive offers employees a host of healthy living tools such as on-site fitness centers and health clinics, exercise and nutrition coaching, gym membership reimbursement, and fitness challenges.
“For us, we see it as really critical to the success of the company in the sense that you need to have happy and healthy employees," replied Lynn Major, Business Leader of Compensation and Benefits at Progressive. “When people are happy and healthy they want to come to work, they’re able to come to work, so you don’t have absenteeism issues, but you also have people who are fully engaged. They’re feeling good, so they’re going to be productive.”
Progressive is among 50 percent of the nation’s employers offering some type of employee wellness program, according to a recent survey from the Rand Corporation. Lynn Major says healthy workers save themselves and the company money.
“In our instance, at Progressive, we pay a significant portion to cover our employees from a medical plan standpoint, but the employee also participates in that cost. By an employee caring about their own health and wellness, it reduces their costs too. Obviously, they’re contributing to the cost of paying for their medical coverage, as well," Major added.
Workplace wellness programs are also becoming more popular at universities. Ben Spitler works at WKU as a maintenance technician. Ben hardly ever went to the doctor, but last year he decided to have a biometric screening at the health clinic on campus. That’s when he found out that he had high cholesterol, which made sense, given his family history of heart disease.
“My dad’s father had his first heart attack in his 50s and ended up having open heart surgery and died in his 60s. My father just had his first heart attack at 55 just a few weeks ago," explained Spitler. "It’s definitely something that hits home and something I want to get a handle on before I get into my 40s or 50s.”
His doctor wanted to put Ben on a cholesterol-lowering drug.
“I told him I’d really like to try to get it down on my own. I didn’t be on the medicine in my 30s. He said as high as mine was, the chances of getting it down weren’t very good," Spitler commented. "I said to give me six months, and after that six months, he was shocked.”
In that time, Ben had dropped his cholesterol by 85 points and lost 30 pounds. The university rewarded his success with a one-time cash payment, which Ben says paid for his gym membership.
WKU launched a revamped employee wellness program last January to help employees target chronic health conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
“It’s interesting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 75 percent of overall health care in this country is associated with chronic illnesses," explained Wade Pinkard, Employee Wellness Manager at WKU.
Those chronic conditions, Pinkard says, are associated with four lifestyle behaviors that we all have control over: physical inactivity, a poor diet, smoking, and too much alcohol. The employee wellness program at WKU offers employees health screenings and website for exercise and nutrition coaching, as well as incentives for joining Weight Watchers and smoking cessation programs.
In the program’s first year, Pinkard says nearly half of faculty and staff completed at least one activity.
“Anecdotally, we’ve had several employees report to us that they were unaware they were border line hypertensive, they hadn’t had their blood pressure checked in some time, and that came out during the screening process," he replied. "Another individual who had very high cholesterol, he followed up with his primary care physician and was put on medication. He made some lifestyle changes with help through the program and was able to get off that medication as a result.”
Most employee wellness programs precede the Affordable Care Act, but the federal health care law is likely to get more employers on board. Obamacare gives employers with wellness programs more latitude to increase insurance premiums on workers who don’t meet certain health guidelines.
Soeren Mattke is a Senior Scientist at the Rand Corporation, a non-profit research group. He took one major corporation and studied its wellness program over a seven-year period.
“What we found is that the overall program returned $1.50 for every $1 invested," explained Mattke.
Based on his research, Mattke says workplace wellness programs offer employers no immediate financial benefit, but long-term, they can lead to reduced health care costs.
In the two years since Jacinda Jones began her weight loss journey, she has dropped more than 150 pounds. It’s easy to see how she has physically changed, but Jacinda says her emotional transformation has been just as spectacular. Sharon Bessette is Jacinda’s supervisor.
“Before Jacinda began her weight loss routine and her goal to change her life, she was a very quiet, introverted person, not much interaction, did her own thing, not a lot of confidence. Once she made the decision to start losing weight and live healthier, she became a whole new person," remarked Bessette. "Her confidence was out the roof, she performed better at work, she had a more bubbly personality and attitude about life when interacting with people. She’s done a 180 from where she was before.”
The 350 pound woman who felt hopeless two years ago is right now training for a 5-K. Today, Jacinda exercises regularly, eats out less, and counts calories.
“But there are those times that I just get bored and I’ll eat when I’m bored. I eat when I’m happy, I eat when I’m sad," Jones said. "It’s hard, it’s still hard to this day.”
Keeping the weight off will be a lifetime chore, but her employer, she says, has her back.