School of Applied Sciences Helps Launch Successful Wellness Program for Employees at Batesville Plant

… Program gives UM students real-world experience as health coaches

Alyssa Ashmore, a University of Mississippi graduate student working on her master's degree in food and nutrition services, leads a 10-10-10 exercise class at the GE Aviation Plant in Batesville. The GE employees work on 10 minutes of cardio, 10 minutes of strength training and 10 minutes of abdominal work. Other classes offered include zumba, yoga/pilates and circuit blast. UM photo by Nathan Latil.

New Year’s resolutions usually include some form of weight-loss or healthy living goal. For employees at the GE Aviation plant in Batesville, that resolution is made easier by an employee wellness program run by the University of Mississippi. In April of 2010, GE contacted the School of Applied Sciences about developing a worksite wellness program utilizing UM graduate students. “GE hired a team to do biometric screening for metabolic syndrome, testing blood work, height and weight, and identified the at-risk people and decided that’s the area we wanted to focus on,” said Melinda Valliant, assistant professor of nutrition and hospitality management and principal investigator for the project. “We used the data to plan the programs and assess outcomes.” The applied sciences students serve as health coaches, and Valliant said they have surpassed her expectations. “We didn’t go in with a canned program,” she said. “We developed a program based on the screening and what the employees asked for.” Some of those things included a grocery store tour, where they learned how to shop for healthy items. The program also includes individual and group exercise programs, and an on-site fitness center with elliptical trainers, treadmills and a walking track. Even the vending machines offer turkey sandwiches, fruit, diet drinks and fruit juices. “The fact is our students have done a great job,” Valliant said. “For a future registered dietician to work with this population is an invaluable experience. As a student to work in the real world and see real-world problems is important.”

Jeanne Edwards, the plant leader at GE, said the idea to start a wellness program for employees in Batesville stemmed from the corporate HealthAhead initiative. “The HealthAhead initiative has a goal of providing healthy options on-site, including a smoke-free campus, healthy vending options, on-site fitness facility, walking trail and group fitness,” Edwards said. “The plant has strong relationships with Mississippi universities and reached out to Ole Miss for nutrition and exercise physiology majors.” Employee participation continues to increase and offerings continue to expand, Edwards said. “The program has been very successful so far and continues to improve,” she said. “Our expectations are to raise the awareness of health risks that affect our workforce. We have been very pleased with the results to date – and there have been many success stories among team members, including significant weight loss and risk factor reduction.” Although employee reaction to the wellness program may have been skeptical at first, people are embracing the program now. “As they see peer successes, they are jumping on board,” Edwards said. “Persistence has paid off. We had our first 5K run on campus on Halloween and we had 67 of 300 employees participate. That was a huge success for us.” The students work three shifts at GE: 8 p.m.-1 a.m.; 5-9 a.m. and 1-5 p.m. This is unique because typically, a counselor would only be present during the day. A few minutes of exercise each day can make a difference, and if an employee is healthy, then the employer gains as well. “I’ll be excited to see the further improvements by the new employees, and I hope it becomes contagious and that 100 percent of the employees participate and take what they learn home to their families,” Valliant said. “I think it’s a good mission for the university and there is a place for every department in Applied Sciences to do something in a corporate wellness program.” It has been a good experience to work with the UM graduate students, Edwards said. “I think we have found a good rhythm, and the grad students now have the benefit of experience from those who have held the role before them,” Edwards said. Alyssa Ashmore is one of the graduate students who received an assistantship and has worked with the program since last fall. “I love it and I love what we do,” Ashmore said. “Last year, participants lost 600 pounds and 42 people decreased their blood pressure. They have really seemed to welcome us.” Ashmore completed her bachelor’s degree in dietetics and nutrition in 2010, followed by an internship in Dallas. She started graduate school last fall to work on her master’s in food and nutrition services. “I encourage all of the employees to take advantage of the resources GE has provided for them, which includes free counselors and free dietitians,” said Ashmore, a native of Ocean Springs. “They have everything at their disposal, and I hope they get involved and meet with us and give it a shot. They can definitely achieve their goals with what GE has provided.” For more information, visit the UM School of Applied Sciences