Danny Flores’ New Year’s resolution has a ring of familiarity to many of us: He’s determined to eat healthier, exercise and shed 10 pounds. Fortunately for Flores, a 16-year employee with UCLA Housing and Hospitality Services, there’s a high probability that he will actually reach his goal.
That’s because Flores has gotten one-on-one help from a personal-fitness trainer, a registered dietitian and a motivational-wellness coach to put him on the road to better health. And he’s now working out at a campus gym on a free pass that’s good through April.
A special 12-week program — offered to him through the combined efforts of UC’s Office of Insurance and Risk Management, UCLA’s Occupational Health Facility and UCLA Recreation and funded by UCLA’s Office of Risk Management — has empowered him to get healthy by giving him access to UCLA’s personal coaches in health, fitness and behavior modification. And it’s paid off — he’s already taken 20 pounds off his 5-foot-8 frame over the last three months.
Danny Flores, in a warehouse at University Apartments South where he works, shed 20 pounds so far through the Workstrong Program.
"Having different people right there to motivate you … it’s an unbelievable support group," said Flores. "Honestly, if it was just me doing this on my own, I would have given up. But if I make a commitment to someone, I will come through. Obligate me, make me responsible for something, and I will come through."
Flores is one of a small pool of UCLA employees who have been invited to join the Workstrong Program, which got under way at UCLA last April but really picked up steam over the summer. So far, 46 UCLA employees have participated and eight have completed it to date. The program was launched systemwide by the UC Office of the President to help those employees who are most prone to workplace injuries — people who have been injured on the job at least twice within a 24-month period.
Run on the Westwood campus out of the Occupational and Employee Health Facility on the sixth floor of the Center for the Health Sciences, Workstrong is designed to help employees improve their overall health and thereby cut their risk for reinjury, said Dr. T. Warner Hudson, director of the facility.
"Many people join an employer when they are young, lean and healthy with good blood pressure and good weight," the physician said. "But over time, people can gradually pick up weight, get high blood pressure and diabetes, develop sore backs and knees, and maybe even have heart attacks and strokes. But people can turn this around. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have data that show that about 75 percent of chronic health conditions can be avoided if people adopt a healthier lifestyle."
To find out whether this holistic approach works, UC San Francisco did a pilot study with 73 employees who had been injured and gave them access to personal trainers, dietitians, smoking-cessation programs and behavior-modification coaches. After four years, researchers found only one of the participants had been reinjured.
While putting together such a program might seem expensive, Hudson said, when compared to the staggering cost to UCLA of a back injury or a heart attack, "it’s so much cheaper to prevent injuries from happening than to reimburse people for illness or injury when you consider all the costs incurred."
Most of the resources that make up the program — the gyms, the personal trainers, the smoking-cessation programs and the well-being support — are already on campus, Hudson said. "UCLA has tremendous expertise that’s already here. The level of coaching expertise, for example, is top-notch."
In fact, UCLA already offers many different wellness programs to employees, such as BHIP, FITWELL and other programs sponsored by UCLA Health System and employee health plans. But not all employees are aware of them or realize they can participate in them, Hudson said. "Along with the service that Workstrong can provide, we let people know about what’s already available to them."
Workstrong participants have come from all over the campus — office workers with repetitive motion injuries, hospital escorts who lift patients, drivers, plumbers and dining and housing staff. "It’s been a diverse slice of the campus workforce," said Alison Frink, Workstrong’s wellness coach who has spent almost two decades motivating clients of a national weight-loss organization. Now Frink uses her skills each week when she talks to participants and encourages them through setbacks, the holidays and personal struggles.
She also screens employees to participate. To be invited to join Workstrong, employees have to have been injured on the job at least twice in the last two years. They must have an open workers’ compensation claim, be medically cleared to participate and be employees in good standing. And they must demonstrate a commitment to follow through with the program.
"We want to make sure that we’re giving this program, this wonderful gift, to people who are really going to take the ball and run with it," said Frink. This means showing up for appointments during non-work hours with a personal trainer and a dietitian at a campus gym, a counselor at the Staff and Faculty Counseling Center or a smoking-cessation class. Throughout the program and three months after completion, participants have free access to campus gyms.
Cristobal Ruiz, a 15-year employee in Dining Services where he is a cook at Covel Commons, had never been inside a gym before he started Workstrong to avoid surgery recommended to repair his right shoulder muscle, injured from repetitive motion. He had already had surgery on his left shoulder for the same kind of injury, and the pain had nevertheless returned. This time, by following the advice of a dietitian and personal trainer, Ruiz has avoided surgery, reduced his pain medication and feels happier. He calls the Workstrong "amazing."
Cristobal Ruiz is now a regular at the Wooden Recreation Center where he works out on machines. A cook at Covel Commons, he credits Workstrong with saving him from undergoing surgery to fix an injured shoulder.
"I love it," Ruiz said enthusiastically. "I am so grateful for the program." His family and a few of his coworkers have noticed the change in him and are now "following what I do."
To succeed, said Elisa Terry, program director of UCLA Recreation’s FITWELL and a collaborator in Workstrong, participants must "be ready to change and be committed to it. When they are and when they are given this opportunity, it’s a winning combination."
Although it’s too early to have statistical data about the effectiveness of Workstrong to prevent injuries, those who have completed the program speak glowingly about the difference it has made in their lives, said Hudson. "Based on early reports on how it makes people feel, I think we’re moving in the right direction."
Flores, who refurbishes apartments and does repairs at University Apartments South, can vouch for that. After he suffered a lower herniated disc in his back in June while removing bathtub caulking, he faced the possibility of incurring even worse injuries. His last injury, Flores said, left his entire left leg numb; next time, he feared, it might require surgery to put pins in his back.
While physical therapy and core-strengthening exercises helped him recover from his herniated disc, he felt he needed to "do something drastic — for my wife and my two teenage sons."
"When I saw the word ‘obese’ on a print-out (of a health report), it hit me like a ton of bricks because I never thought of myself as obese," said Flores, who weighed 200 pounds at the time of his injury. "I’ve always gone on quickie diets, lost five or 10 pounds and ended up right back where I started."
After learning how to read nutritional information on labels for the first time, recording what he ate for two weeks, having the dietitian show him how to make better food choices and working with a personal trainer, Flores is injury-free, 20 pounds lighter and regularly walking two miles to and from his home to work.
"I feel so good right now," said Flores, who used to challenge his sons to eating contests. "I’ve been injury-free since June. I have more energy and stamina. I’m very conscious of every meal I eat and every movement I make. And I’m never going to go back to 200 pounds again. I’ve worked too hard to get to this point."
For more information on Workstrong, go here.