How to create healthier school employees?

By taking a class, a walk—even a stand together

It must have looked odd at first. The superintendent and members of his leadership team in business attire walking the neighborhoods surrounding the administrative center of the Chula Vista Elementary School District. Surely they were mistaken for leaflet distributors or salespeople. Soon, however, more employees were walking the neighborhood, noting that life and work are more enjoyable when you literally put your best foot forward.

Today, more CVESD employees are taking walks during breaks, lunch hour and after work than ever. In addition, fitness classes are offered three times a week for teachers at the Education Service and Support Center. Three schools last year offered fitness classes for their staff members on their own campuses as well.

Employees are stepping up. “I have been counting steps for over 20 years now,” said Barbara Uribe, a Technology Specialist in Student, Family, & Community Services. “I love to spend my breaks and sometimes part of my lunch walking. I have had numerous conversations with my fellow employees on exercise, wellness and overall personal happiness. Over the years, I have seen an increase in CVESD employees walking. We all understand work is important but keeping healthy is also important. Employees feel good about themselves and an overall sense of happiness getting steps in while visiting with their fellow employees.”

What’s that expression, the journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step? Superintendent Francisco Escobedo, Ed.D., began “walking meetings” with members of his Cabinet and other District staff when he became superintendent in 2010. They walk the corners of the ESSC or the neighborhood, sometimes encountering other staff on walks, from clerks to coordinators.

“It sends the message that it is not just ok, it is important,” Dr. Escobedo said. “I congratulate them for taking the time to take care of themselves. I want to make sure they know that they matter. They matter not just because they are my employees, they matter because they are people who have a life outside of work. It is so important that they take time out of their busy schedules to care for themselves so they have a work-life balance.”

2016 Exercise Employees walk 2

STEP AND REPEAT: Even on a rare rainy day, CVESD employees regularly walk as part of a range of activities to promote healthier lifestyles. 

Dr. Escobedo had met with American Heart Association representatives. “With rising employee health care costs, and employee wellness also a concern, I was asking them questions about what other ways we could promote fitness and wellness? They said walking meetings,” Dr. Escobedo recalled. “I thought that was a great idea. I’d also read about Apple founder Steve Jobs, and his walking meetings. So with my executive directors, when I had one-on-one meetings with them, I’d say ‘Hey, let’s take a walk.’ At first it was shocking. They weren’t prepared. Now, they know. Some of them even have an extra set of shoes.”

 

When employees model behavior that promotes walking and exercise, it resonates with students and parents in CVESD’s Safe Routes to School program.

“When staff members are involved in walking and other wellness activities, parents and students notice that, too,” said CVESD Program Manager Melissa Minas. “Communities feel empowered to improve the environment for walking and biking in their communities, and develop lines of communication with our local agencies to implement efforts to support safer surroundings and adopt healthier lifestyles.”

Three pilot schools—Vista Square, Castle Park and Loma Verde—launched exercise classes last year for staff members.

This year, there are about 40 participants in the District’s Early Childhood Department Live Well San Diego! Program, attending fitness classes that are offered on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“Those taking the classes have more energy, feel and look better overall and most importantly take the knowledge they have learned back to their school sites,” said Rita Palet, Director of Early Childhood Education. “The adult students are not only participating physically with interval training, but are learning about nutrition and health in general. The mixed group of general education and special education teachers and staff along with administrators—including the Superintendent—have formed a fitness community that supports the initiative to combat obesity in and out of the classroom.”

Certified fitness trainer Mike Cothrine says he has noticed increased energy levels, weight loss, and improved morale among CVESD employees since the fitness classes began over two years ago.

“Their quality of life is improving,” Cothrine said. “They can do things they could not do before. For teachers in the classroom, they can do exercises with their students that they could not do before. And we have seen a ripple effect in terms of morale. There is a synergy, where they are supporting each other and holding each other accountable (for attending class and meeting fitness goals). People’s lives are changing.”

Employee work spaces are changing, too. Many employees are using height-adjustable “standing desks,” which are computer work stations that can be elevated so that employees can do their work while standing. Such desks help relieve back pain and boost productivity, according to research studies.

“Sitting down for eight hours is not healthy,” Dr. Escobedo said. “We are really looking differently at our work environments.”

Dr. Escobedo said he is pleased about the shift in attitudes toward workplace wellness. “Initially, people were taken aback that I would actually go out and take a walk. ‘What’s he doing outside walking?’ Now, it’s almost like a support system,” he said. “They’ll wave at me, and give their colleagues a thumbs up. They encourage each other.”

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