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What to do with an empty room

By Becky Comet, AAC Member Benefits Manager

If you have recently or are planning to clean out a room or a small building that has been used for storage, consider repurposing the space for a fitness/wellness center for county employees. A mountain of research touts the benefits of an on-site fitness center for employee use. Here are three of the many benefits:

Reduce absenteeism. Regular exercise keeps people healthier and less vulnerable to common illnesses. Therefore, they are at work more.

Reduce stress. Stress and depression are the leading causes of absenteeism. Working out raises the heart rate, improves blood flow, relieves stress, and produces hormones that enhance mood.

Reduce health care costs. According to the Wellness Councils of America, approximately 70 percent of all illnesses and associated health care costs can be avoided. Weight and stress are among the most pronounced health risk factors impacting employees’ health and well-being. Increasing the opportunity for physical activity is an evidenced-based approach that can lessen these two risk factors.

An on-site fitness center is more beneficial than promoting or subsidizing a membership at an off-site health club. Studies show that people who pay for a gym membership do not necessarily develop a long-term habit of exercising. People are more likely to stick to an exercise routine when the fitness center is easily accessible.

Some counties have created or are in the process of creating fitness/wellness centers with unused county space. For example, Pulaski County has had a fitness center exclusively for county employees (not family or friends) for about 10 years. Pulaski County Treasurer/Collector Debra Buckner championed this cause, initially to reduce health care costs. The county started with a small room, but that area grew when they discovered a larger storage room with bathrooms connected to the small room. Buckner got permission to clean out the room, and the Pulaski County Wellness Center was on its way. The Quorum Court saw the potential benefit for county employees and allocated money for the project. The county considered acquiring donated or used equipment, but that did not pan out. In the end they used only half of what the Quorum Court had allocated. County employees have 24/7 access to the center with a swipe card entry. Law enforcement personnel working night shifts also can take advantage of the facility at any time. A TV with a DVD player is available to play an array of exercise videos. In an effort to encourage staff of all fitness levels, Buckner brought in a ping pong table. The staff has held many tournaments through the years, which has the added bonus of team building and comradery.

Pulaski County has now hired a Wellness Coordinator, Chris Barnett, to take over the reins.Barnett has acquired some new equipment for the Wellness Center. He is available to county employees for consultation and training, and he sends out a newsletter with advice on a host of topics.

Baxter County is in the beginning stages of adding a wellness center. The county purchased a building on the courthouse square, and a Wellness Committee is exploring possibilities for this space. The building needs work to bring it up to code, and the committee is looking for grants to cover that cost. The committee is discussing how to raise funds and what equipment they might be able to acquire. Human Resources Director Sue Edwards says, “It’s all baby steps.”

On-site health and fitness facilities will have some concrete and measurable benefits for the county. However, some benefits will be far less measurable but far more beneficial in the lives of county employees. Counties do not have to start big. It will be an ongoing yet worthwhile project.

BONUS IDEA: The Baxter County Wellness Committee has a vision for more than just a Wellness Center. They do not have a good space for a community garden. So, since a number of the employees have their own gardens, they are looking at starting “produce sharing” days. This is not a farmers’ market. No money will exchange hands. They will simply share the fruits of their labor with each other.

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