Exercising Healthy Judgment

By Rita Zeidner May 1, 2009
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Plenty of data suggest that active, fit employees have lower health care costs and, generally speaking, are more productive than couch potatoes. But there is no consensus on how to get people to exercise more, eat better or make other healthy lifestyle changes. Nor is there agreement on the payoff for employers who invest in such efforts. Rachel Permuth-Levine, a scientist and policy-maker at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., wants to change that.

Permuth-Levine is deputy director of the Office of Strategic and Innovative Programs at NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, an organization known for dramatic scientific contributions that improve health worldwide. But her six-person staff has a mission that hits closer to home: to improve the health of employees at NIH and throughout government by figuring out what workplace health initiatives deliver results.

Rachel Permuth-Levine

Education: 2007, doctorate in public and community health, University of Maryland, College Park; 1998, master of science in epidemiology, University of South Florida, Tampa; 1996, bachelor of science in mathematics and psychology, Bradley University, Peoria, Ill.

Current job: 2007-present, deputy director, Office of Strategic and Innovative Programs, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.

Career: 2001-07, program analyst, National Cancer Institute and National Institute on Aging, NIH.

Personal: Age 34; born La Crosse, Wis.; married to husband Howard; one son.

Diversions: Yoga, going to the gym with friends, taking walks.

Connections: www.nhlbi.nih.gov/; www.healthierfeds.opm.gov/; (301) 496-9845.

NIH is an organization brimming with achievers. But even among its many stars, Permuth-Levine stands out. Just 34, she has a doctorate in public health and was cum laude as an undergraduate and in graduate school. During eight years at NIH, she has received numerous awards and commendations, including honors for mentorship and collaboration.

As a result of a recent promotion, she now has the time and authority to focus on what she says she does best––design, evaluate and advise employers and policy-makers on worksite health initiatives, including fitness programs.

It’s a passion rooted, at least in part, by experience.

"I know what it’s like to be overweight," she says, volunteering that she was a chubby child. Although slimmed down, keeping weight off remains a struggle, and exercise helps.

Wellness initiatives, she maintains, shouldn’t be a tough sell to business leaders. Nearly 2 million Americans die and 25 million are disabled each year by chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease that often stem from unhealthy lifestyles. Given that many employers are staggering under health insurance costs linked to these diseases, embracing prevention should be a no-brainer.

"Create a culture of [disease] prevention," she counsels, and savings will follow.

Permuth-Levine acknowledges that convincing managers to invest in wellness might be a battle, especially in a down economy. Some might be skeptical after they spent thousands on workplace fitness centers––once the gold standard for wellness––that few employees use.

Moreover, employers have traditionally relied heavily on vendors and other third parties when making health and wellness decisions. Such advisors may be blind to the limitations of their solutions, or mainly interested in making sales.

Trained in epidemiology, Permuth-Levine says it’s part of her job to peel back layers of hype. Her own findings, supported by other research, point to value in employer investments for disease prevention, namely smoking cessation, cancer screenings and flu shots.

There’s also a fitness component to health promotion. But, as many employers learn, merely pointing workers toward the gym is unlikely to bring results.

Employers need to offer variety, she says.

A certified fitness instructor, she has tried to hook reluctant exercisers by teaching free workshops in less traditional options such as hip-hop dance.

She also supports policies that allow workers the flexibility to exercise during the workday. "Even if it’s just allowing someone 20 minutes to take a walk, if that worker returns more present and productive, it’s worth it," she argues.

When it comes to preaching the benefits of prevention, Permuth-Levine is downright evangelical. She urges other employers to take the same approach. Even in a health-centric environment like NIH, she stays on message. In February, she organized a five-day event, mostly held during the workday, focusing on healthier aging. She’s planning another weeklong event on stress reduction for September. Positive media coverage of her events has had viral impact and she’s bombarded by employer requests for tips on organizing and financing similar efforts.

While organizationally Permuth-Levine’s office lies outside of NIH’s Office of Human Resources—indeed, the offices are several miles apart—she frequently meets with HR officials at NIH and other government agencies to ensure health promotion doesn’t get snarled in red tape.

NIH, like other federal employers, is barred from spending taxpayer money on wellness initiatives such as health screenings, Weight Watchers and free gym access that are mainstays in the private sector. But she’s found ways to offer similar services at no cost.

For instance, she brought in nonprofits to do free cholesterol, vision and other screenings. Now she’s considering asking Overeaters Anonymous, a free weight-loss self-help group, to organize an NIH chapter.

Concerned that some might find the fees charged by the NIH employee-run gym prohibitive, she successfully lobbied for a lower price.

A remaining challenge: amassing data––some housed within HR and protected by privacy laws––that will allow her and HR officials to determine what initiatives are paying off.

But even without hard evidence, Phil Lenowitz, deputy director of human resources at NIH, remains convinced that initiatives like the ones Permuth-Levine promotes will undoubtedly lead to cost savings.

"If you’re negotiating health care, healthy employees are going to get you a lower rate," he says. "Plus, your workforce is going to be more creative, more productive and more energized."

The author is senior writer for HR Magazine.

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