This article is the second in EBN's year-long BeneFIT Success series, which will chronicle employers and employees in their individual and organizational wellness triumphs. The first installment, "Uphill battle, downhill momentum," was featured in the March EBN and is available at ebn.benefitnews.com. Learn more about how to submit your company as a candidate for the series at the end of this article. Also, view the accompanying slide show with before and after photos here

Maria Giambeluca's primary care physician calls her the poster child of health for a patient in her age bracket, however, that wasn't always the case.

Giambeluca, 62, earned such praise and distinction through hard work and dedication toward a diet and fitness regime that helped her lose nearly 140 pounds in 18 months. This allowed her to stop using a series of heart medications she'd been on for several years.

As Giambeluca and her employer, Ivoclar Vivadent, Inc., have happily discovered, a dedicated health and wellness program beats a medicinal cocktail any day.

"I've battled weight issues my entire life, and nothing worked," says Giambeluca, who works in the finance department at Ivoclar Vivadent, a dental manufacturing and products company that has U.S. headquarters in Amherst, N.Y. "It was the team here and the support of everyone else that's helped me."

Giambeluca attributes her good turn in fortune to Ivoclar's "Healthy Me" program, which combines the use of online wellness tools, weight-loss programs, incentive rewards and gym equipment.

"Healthy Me" was originally initiated through the company's medical provider, Independent Health. But Ivoclar now offers its own stand-alone version to all 400 of its employees across North America.

Michele Golding, Ivoclar's compensation and benefits manager, used Independent Health's program as a template to create a concept she thought would be better tailored for her colleagues.

The backbone of "Healthy Me" is a point system that rewards participants for certain achievements. For example, participants get 25 points for attending a lunch-and-learn to discuss the latest in nutrition. Those who earn 500 points are awarded a $250 reimbursement, which they can use for any type of healthy purchase, such as gym memberships, bicycles, running sneakers, home exercise equipment and sporting goods. Those who earn at least 300 points get a $100 reimbursement.

The points program is broken down into three main components - health awareness, prevention and healthy lifestyle changes. Employees keep track of their progress online through a system Golding set up with the help of a local information technology company. Employees can keep track of the number of points they've earned and complete health risk assessments to help identify needs and goals. Workers who complete an HRA once a year earn 100 points.

Another 100 points can be earned for completing recommended screenings for cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels. Employees who complete a smoking cessation program net 500 points, and 100 points is awarded for each Weight Watchers program that is completed (up to three per year).

Employees who participate in organized community events - such as walks, runs or bike rides - collect 50 points per event, and those who exercise get one per day for at least 30 minutes of exercise.

Golding says she can't help but feel proud of what the program has accomplished. "The bottom line is we had no increase in our medical insurance premiums in our out-of-area program, and only a 1% increase in premiums in our Western New York program," Golding says.

"We want all of our employees to be healthy and happy," she continues. "Our group literally lost a ton of weight in the first year."

Participation rates for "Healthy Me" have grown steadily, from 19% in the program's first year, 2008, to 31% in 2009 and 46% in 2010. Golding expects the figure to increase as new programs are added to other Ivoclar offices, such as its manufacturing facility in Mississauga, Canada.

Ivoclar is giving its workers good reason to join the program. The company backed a complete renovation of the fitness center at the Amherst location, and the company has also revamped its eating habits, offering only healthy food choices at employee events and customer service seminars. The Amherst location hosts several educational meetings a year for dental professionals.

"We're not a big doughnut population," Golding says. "We do a lot of fruits and salads. I think you need to change the culture of the company if you want to see results."

While proud of all of the participants in "Healthy Me," Golding notes that a few stood out from the pack - most notably Giambeluca, who credits Golding and her co-workers with helping her lose more than half her body weight since she started the program.

While Mark Utzig hasn't dropped quite as much weight as his co-worker, he, too, has benefited from "Healthy Me." Utzig has been with Ivoclar for 19 years and is currently their senior manager of integrated sales systems. He's been involved in the company's wellness program for more than three years, and he says it has helped him regain his endurance and flexibility following three knee surgeries.

"The program has motivated me with the point system and monetary reward, and it's also motivated others to the point that it's caused a ripple effect among the group," Utzig says. "Some of us will go to the gym or run together as a group now. I initially lost 15 pounds, and now use the program to maintain my weight range."

Utzig travels a lot, so he's thankful the program also allows him to gain points while he's on the road, and on weekends. He's used his $250 reimbursement to purchase new sneakers for his wife, which encourages her to keep up with their planned weekend hikes and other excursions.

It would be easy for Golding to take a step back and admire her accomplishments through the "Healthy Me" program, but she's always looking for new ideas to engage Ivoclar's employees.

Golding is a member of both World at Work and the Society for Human Resource Management, and communicates regularly with her colleagues, trading fitness and nutrition tips.

"It's all about the marketing," Golding says. "We do posters and email blasts, but a lot of it is also going around and talking with people face-to-face, as sometimes it's the only way to get people to understand that you're concerned about them."

To keep things fresh, Golding and her staff are constantly coming up with new activities, such as an Ivoclar Football League wellness program that runs in accordance with the schedule of the National Football League. They also created a companywide version of the popular "The Amazing Race" television show, coupling up employees as part of a walking tour, where the prize is a $50 MasterCard.

Giambeluca says "Healthy Me" has made her a believer in how a well-run and innovative wellness program can change lifestyles.

Chris Silva, a former EBN associate editor, is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. To submit your organization's BeneFIT Success story, email Editor-in-Chief Kelley Butler at kelley.butler@sourcemedia.com.

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