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Univera's office fitness program puts employees in the rider's seat

It's not unusual for employees to bike to work, but starting this week, employees at Univera Healthcare will bike while they're at work, behind desks.

The Williamsville-based health insurer, the smallest of the three big insurers locally, has launched a new program to encourage physical activity and fitness at work, in the hope of eventually introducing it to their employer clients.

The goal is to boost the health of employees and their families, and to lower the medical costs for employers and insurers.

"We have a lot of people who are at their desks for hours during the day," said Olivia Belter, Univera community affairs director. "How do we find more ways for them to be physically active?"

Under the 12-week pilot of the insurer's new Pedal Project, 25 employees chosen at random from among a pool of 110 volunteers will each get an exercise ball chair and a stationary "pedaler" machine -- essentially a miniature bike -- that can fit under their desks. The goal is to do at least 30 minutes on the pedaler each day and to sit for "as much as they can" on the ball chair, Belter said.

The chair helps to improve posture and strengthen the body's core abdominal muscles, while the pedaler helps strengthen muscles and bones, increase cardiovascular fitness and promote weight loss. The 18-pound pedaler, which can also count calories, distance, and time, includes a tension dial for those who want "an opportunity to get more out of it," Belter said.

And it's small enough to be placed on the desk and used with arms instead. "People are getting close to a total body workout at their desk," she said.

Each person selected a "buddy" to share the equipment with, and to motivate each other to use the equipment. Employees are asked to track their activity on a sheet or online, and they can get points through the company's Active Rewards program. The program also includes a health screening, pre- and post-assessment, weekly promotional activities, incentives and online nutritional and physical activity resources.

"We don't want to spend resources and time on something that our employees aren't going to get use out of," Belter said.

There's also another six pedalers and six ball chairs set up in a conference room in the center of the building, which any employee can use, giving those volunteers who didn't get chosen a chance to benefit as well. All employees using the equipment must sign a liability waiver.

The pilot, which began Tuesday, will last through Dec. 16, at which point the equipment will be available for other employees to sign out and use at their desks for 12 weeks.

The company will then begin testing the program with a select group of employers in 2010. The equipment costs about $120 each, so not every business can afford to provide it for every employee. But they can still put them in conference rooms.

"We feel that it's a responsibility for us as a health plan to care for our members and the community, and we feel that this Pedal Project is an innovative initiative that we can share with the community," said Dr. Richard P. Vienne Jr., regional medical director for Univera. "If you can't get to exercise, we're bringing exercise in an innovative way to you."

The effort represents the latest attempt by health insurers to promote more exercise and physical activity locally, both in response to overall medical costs but also to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer -- the leading causes of death in upstate New York.

According to research by Univera, 389,000 Western New Yorkers were overweight and 343,500 were obese in 2006, with $348 million in health costs. Poor diet and inactivity are two major causes.

Belter noted that newer technology and the effects of cost-cutting because of the recession means that people are very sedentary at work, using teleconferencing, video conferencing and Skype to communicate instead of getting up and about.

According to a health risk assessment of Univera employees in 2007, only 52 percent of employees said they were exercising at least three times a week, and 50 percent said they wanted to do more, including at work. By contrast, Belter said, experts recommend that people should get 30 to 60 minutes of rigorous exercise every day.

Univera consulted with Dr. Don Brown, an ergonomics expert and physical therapist at Millersport Physical Therapy in Amherst, who helped the company find equipment that would be conducive to different workstations and cubicles. The equipment is made by PMR Products of Albany.

"We're trying. That's the bottom line," Vienne said.

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com

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