The program is called Virgin HealthMiles, and it encourages employees to get in shape and stay healthy through everyday activity, even on the job. The program is part of a school system effort to create a wellness culture and help employees play an active role in taking care of their health. And it comes at a time when school systems statewide are grappling with rising health care costs.
Beverly Davis, the school system's director of finance and the employee wellness council chairperson, said the school system launched the program in January last year and made it available to all employees four months later. Since then, she said, 72 percent of the system's 8,100 employees have enrolled.
And they have turned the entire school system into one big walking path. Central office staff do laps around the table in the conference room, in the board room, along the parking lots and the hallways of the adjacent Applications and Research Lab.
They walk in the rain, before and after work, as groups during lunchtime, and often scout out new paths to log steps, including to copiers and bathrooms farthest from their work areas.
"People will say, 'Here, I'll take that upstairs, I need some extra steps today,'" said Cathy Bejm, 59, a school system administrative assistant. The Laurel resident combined Virgin Health Miles with her existing health regimen and says she has lost 57 pounds since January. "I always tell my boss, 'OK, if you don't need anything I'm going to go out and get some air,' and she'll say, 'Enjoy your walk.'"
Al Hansen, 53, a ground services assistant manager from Eldersburg, began a weight-loss regimen two years ago and subsequently combined Virgin Health Miles to his routine. He has lost 66 pounds in two years, about half of which came after enrolling in the Virgin health plan. He averages about 15,000 steps a day.
The program includes a money-making incentive that is similar to a frequent-flier points program. Participants earn points, called HealthMiles, for logging a certain number of steps or engaging in other healthful activities. Participants who wear the pedometers, which Virgin calls activity trackers, plug the device into their computer to record their steps in a personal file.
They earn 20 HealthMiles for 7,000 steps in one day, or up to 100 HealthMiles for 20,000 or more steps in a day. They can earn 150 HealthMiles for improving their body mass index or blood pressure and 100 HealthMiles for going smoke-free.
Participants can earn cash rewards along the program's five reward levels: from $25 at the second level (6,000-11,999 HealthMiles) to $175 at the fifth level (36,000 HealthMiles). The total amount in climbing from the first level to the fifth level is $500, which can be earned annually.
"At first I started because they said if you walk, you can make money," said Dawn Trakney, 55, a school system mailroom clerk who lives in Sykesville. "Then I started walking and I noticed as I started racking up steps a few weeks went by and I lost a few pounds. I thought, 'Wow, this is working nicely.'" Trakney said that since January she has lost 41 pounds and seen her cholesterol level fall.
Donna Miller, 56, an administrative secretary from Ellicott City, said that she used the program to lose weight before having hip-replacement surgery, believing it would help with her recuperation. "And darn if it didn't," Miller said. "I had a hip replacement in May and I was back to work in four weeks. Being on the program for a year, I've lost 23 pounds."
Grein, 53, who lives in Hanover, says she has always been physically active and has logged 3.5 million steps since enrolling in the program.
"I put on my pedometer every morning like I put on my jewelry," said Grein, who added that upon enrolling in the program she discovered she had high blood pressure, something she would not have known had she not enrolled.
"I am now on medication and a modified low-sodium diet," she said. "When I think that I could have had a stroke or heart attack, it's a bit disconcerting."
Davis said that school officials are calculating data to determine whether the plan has led to a reduction in systemwide health claims. She attributed the program's popularity in part to Howard County being "so progressive in the wellness movement," and she credited school board member Brian Meshkin for helping to promote the program.
Davis added, "It's a tough economy and people are working for their money. A lot of people are saying, 'Hey, if you're willing to walk and meet [the program requirement] you can get to your whole $500 in a year.'"
Some employees said that keeping insurance costs low would be an added incentive.
"It's pretty easy to understand trying to hold the line on insurance costs," said Hansen. "We are fortunate here. We have good benefits and good medical insurance and so if I can lose weight and be healthier and help maintain good quality insurance for all who work here, to me, that's just a huge plus."