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Made for Walkin’

Start! Program Reaches Out to Employers to Improve National Health Statistics
Matt Bannister

Matt Bannister says Start! is an ambitious effort to help improve cardiovascular health.

According to a recent Harvard University study, for every hour of physical activity, the average person gains two hours of life expectancy.

That’s just one nugget of information the American Heart Association (AHA) needed to bolster its newest nationwide program, Start!, which is designed to promote healthy living through regular physical activity and better nutrition.

Start! was launched this year and represents the newest program introduced by the AHA to raise awareness of cardiovascular health. Like other AHA initiatives such as Power to End Stroke and Go Red for Women, Start! works to promote education and awareness of cardiovascular disease, the nation’s number-one killer.

However, Start! is also unique, in that it promotes specific ways to prevent heart disease and other health issues by partnering with employers across the country.

Specifically, companies are being urged to do whatever they can to get their employees to do some walking.

In the Right Vein

Matt Bannister, senior vice president of Health Strategies for the AHA’s Northeast Affiliate, explained that Start! is the first program geared toward participation on a corporate level that goes beyond sponsorship or financial assistance.

“We’re really trying to focus on prevention with this program,” he said. “Historically, the American Heart Association has been focused on treatment and research, and we still will be. But if that’s all we do, then there’s this enormous bubble of people with existing problems moving through the health care system. If we don’t get to them beforehand, we’ll never meet our goals.”

These include increasing understanding of cardiovascular disease and its risk factors, but also reducing the number of preventable illnesses in the United States. In turn, Start! is geared toward the nation’s employers because of the connection between preventable illness and skyrocketing health care costs.

According to a study evaluating physical activity and its correlation with disease, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that fitness programs can reduce employer health care costs by 20% to 55%, and further, that preventable illnesses make up 70% of illness costs in the U.S.

Reducing just one health risk, the study continues, can increase a person’s productivity on the job by 9%.

“What we’ve recognized is that health care costs are a major concern among U.S. employers, and we can already prove through research the health care benefits that come to an employer if employees are more active,” Bannister said. “Productivity increases, and there is less absenteeism. Better health can have a significant impact on an employer’s bottom line, so we’re looking to them to join with us to improve the health of their employees, but also of their wallets.”

Bannister said two basic factors lead to weight problems — too many calories in and too few calories out — and creating a balance between the two in order to help curb health problems is the crux of the Start! program for both individuals and employers.

“On a corporate mission level, our goal is to reduce injury and death from cardiovascular issues such as heart disease and stroke. One way to do that is to tackle the risk factors that lead to cardiovascular disease, and one of those is obesity,” he said. “At this point, we’re not looking for anything except for individuals and companies to join us, and within those companies, we’re looking for internal champions of the cause. This is our chance to give instead of ask.”

Weighing In

Start! revolves around walking as a cardiovascular activity, because it has the lowest drop-out rate of any fitness regimen among Americans. Participating companies are given a kit that includes weekly mile trackers for internal teams and access to several assistance tools, such as the My Start! online portal that logs daily activity and weighs it against calories ingested, and a wake-up call service that provides 12 free calls for an earlier start to the day, recorded by celebrities such as Jane Seymour, Vanna White, and Jared Fogle, spokesperson for Subway restaurants.

“It’s something you can stay with, and it isn’t intimidating,” said Bannister, adding that for Western Mass., the AHA has set a preliminary goal to enroll at least 10 of the region’s top employers in the Start! program by April.

On the 25th of that month, the AHA will stage an ‘Icon Day,’ which has been designed to put a public face on the initiative, asking company leaders both locally and across the country to lead their employees in walking activities, wearing sneakers to work, or participating in walking meetings and walking press conferences.

“The idea is that employers will encourage employees to go walk at some point during the day,” said Bannister, “and lead by example to incorporate walking into the work day.”

Among those companies already pledging involvement is Lenox American Saw in East Longmeadow. Bill Burke, its president, first became involved with AHA initiatives three years ago and has already promoted healthy habits within the company, but said Start! is a natural, easily implemented addition to AHA programming on the corporate level.

“It’s a perfect fit to bring additional awareness,” he said. “There are so many companies that recognize the problem, but how do you grab on to it and formalize it? In this case, the AHA has done the tough work and given us a comprehensive package.”

Burke added that, from a business perspective, Start! addresses not only physical issues, but job satisfaction as well.

“In a pressure-packed work environment, exercise allows you to think more clearly,” he said.

“On every single front, it’s a good cause,” Burke added. “It promotes awareness of a major health issue that affects virtually everyone in some way, and it’s great for families and companies. At American Saw, we’re getting people involved through contests, so even more get out and walk.”

Making Strides

A Start! Heart Walk, which Burke will chair, will be held on May 20 in Forest Park, and overall, Bannister said the program may expand in coming years. But at this point, he said, the main objective is to spread the word about the program and, more importantly, its importance.

“Like with other programs such as Go Red, we’re primarily trying to create awareness,” he said, noting that Start! has begun with a focus on major employers, on both the national and regional level, in order to allow that awareness to gradually trickle down. Nationally, companies like Subway, ConAgra Foods (which produces Healthy Choice), and AstraZeneca have signed on, while locally, American Saw, Health New England, Peter Pan Bus Lines, and Western Mass. Electric (WMECO) will serve as sponsors of the Start! Heart Walk.

“The next phase will be to introduce Start! to the consumers, in hopes of creating a culture of fitness in America,” Bannister said. “We’ve completely gotten away from the ‘I think I’ll take the stairs’ mentality … so not only are we an aging society, but we’re much more sedentary.”

To change that, the AHA maintains that just an hour a day could lead to a new lease on a longer life.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]