Meeting the Challenge

Area execs move to the front lines in the battle for a more fit and healthier workforce.

Four years of the Fittest Execs and Fittest Companies Challenge have driven home the message that effective workplace wellness programs begin at the top, and that a competitive venue can contribute to greater employee engagement—and thus, a greater return on the organization’s investment.

"Any way you can get the individual to engage and get some ROI is the success." - David Gentile, CEO, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City.

David Gentile knows all about ROI. He’s CEO of the region’s largest health insurer. But he knows about that return on a more personal level, having donned the work out gear to take part in this year’s Challenge on one of three teams fielded by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City. “My sense of the way RIO works for individuals is that the team format helped a lot, but it really came down to whether they individually wanted to make a difference. On a personal level, I was using this to get ready for a knee replacement—I needed to be in as good a shape as possible to get through elective surgery.”

Motivation like that is vital to long-term workplace wellness success, he said. So it’s important for anyone structuring such a pro-gram to avoid one-size-fits all approaches and understand each employee’s individual motivation—from something as simple as getting into a new swim suit this summer to something more profound, like wanting to live long enough to see a grandchild’s wedding. “Any way you can get the individual to engage and get some ROI is the success,” Gentile said.

The premise of Ingram’s Fittest Execs and Fittest Companies Challenge is simple: Marry C-level commitment with a competitive venue, and you’ve laid the foundation for changing employee behavior. But you don’t get there without breaking a sweat.

That lesson was reinforced throughout the fall  and early winter as area executives—and employees from dozens of corporate teams—took up the fourth annual Fittest Execs and Fittest Companies Challenge. It was, statistically speaking, the most successful iteration of the competition since its inception in 2009. This year, a record 83.9 percent of those who finished the competition tested out with higher health scores than when they began, and in many instances, with dramatic results in improved health scores.

That mark was somewhat harder to hit this year because roughly 20 percent of the field was made up of people who had competed in the Challenge in previous years. These were people who had already realized the easiest gains and were working in more rarified territory of higher starting scores.

Organized by Ingram’s and jointly sponsored by BlueKC, the University of Kansas Hospital, The YMCA of Greater Kansas City and Holmes Murphy and Associates, this year’s Challenge introduced a legion of new faces to the competition, in addition to those familiar ones who returned in rare form.

The Fittest Execs and Fittest Companies Challenge is just one, local step toward addressing a much larger national problem with the rising costs of health care and insurance and indicators that the nation’s health overall shows signs of decline. The need to bring health-care costs under control is a burden that falls not just on the nation’s medical-care providers but on individuals’ taking responsibility to improve and maintain their health and their employers’ providing a frame-work for that to happen, business executives say.

Other top area executives joining BlueKC’s David Gentile in the Challenge this year were John Bluford, CEO for Truman Medical Centers, Joe Ratterman, chief executive for BATS Global Markets, Bob Page of University of Kansas Hospital, as well as corporate presidents, chief financial officers and chief operating officers from organizations like Tria Health, Gragg Advertising, A.L. Huber Construction, Panera Bread and many others.

And some organizations went very big: For a second straight year, Stinson Morrison Hecker entered four teams in the Challenge, and Meierotto’s Midwest Jewelers debuted this year with an equal number of teams

Others, like BATS, Ingram’s Magazine and Gragg Advertising, seized the opportunity to enter one team of fitness buffs in pursuit of the Fittest Team title, and another group of harder health cases to pursue the Most-Improved Team title, so that neither group’s gains were offset by under-perfomers within that category. The outcome? BATS came away the clear winner, grabbing the top corporate spot for Fittest Team, as well as a share of first place in the Most-Improved Team category, and one individual title—Ratterman’s first-place finish for Fittest Man Under 50.

The Challenge, Ratterman said, was an opportunity to place extra emphasis to a goal that was part of the company’s founding in 2005. “We’ve been pushing the message of fitness and health from the very beginning,” he said, so getting involved wasn’t as much a springboard to higher employee aware-ness of health issues “as much as it was a reaffirmation, or a confirmation, that this is not just something we thought about once—it’s something we think about on a regular basis.”

Fittest Team: BATS Global Markets, team 1 

Brian Schell, chief financial officer; Chris Issacson, chief operating officer; Joe Ratterman, chief executive officer; Thad Prososki, HR director

You don’t go from start-up company to billion-dollar revenues in six years without some kind of competitive fire baking the organizational cake. So it should be of little surprise to anyone who knows Joe Ratterman that BATS Global Markets’ would enter the Fittest Execs and Fittest CompaniesChallenge and come out smoking.

For one, the chief executive at the Lenexa-based stock exchange won the individual crown of Fittest Man Under 50. More on that in the pages to follow.
For another, one of his two teams earned a share of first place in the Most Improved Team category. Again, more on that achievement in subsequent pages.

The first BATS team, though, was really cooking. By running off with the title of Fittest Team, as well, the company is the first in the four years of the Challenge to earn top honors on each side of the competition—for overall fitness and for level of improvement.

“We shared with everybody on the staff the fact that we were getting into it; everybody knew that the executives were stepping up to enter this competition with other Kansas City executives and companies,” Ratterman said. The formal announcement of winners in this issue of Ingram’s, he said, represents “a clear signal to the full team and all the associates that we think about these issues at the top as senior managers who are leading  by example and putting themselves out there to be measured and to improve themselves.”

BATS’ Team No 1—consisting of chief executive officer Joe Ratterman, chief financial officer Brian Schell, chief operating officer Chris Isaacson and HR director Thad Prososki—turned in an average score of 140.75 on the 150-point scale for the 15 health indicators that make up the competition’s  scoring matrix. It was the only one of dozens of competing teams to cross that threshold.

Having your human resources guy in the mix helps reinforce a signal to all employees in these days of corporate concern over higher costs for company-paid health insurance. “It will come as no surprise to any of our associates that our senior leadership would not only want to be involved in a fitness challenge, but would also compete fiercely to win,” Prososki said. “That spirit of competition aligns with our culture and reinforces the benefits of committing to fitness goals.”

The format of the Challenge, he said, reinforces BATS’ own culture and keeps the competitive juices flowing. Competition was a key element in structuring the Challenge when it launched in 2009, as was the belief that executive leadership matters—that if companies are going to truly get a handle on both health-care insurance costs and the harder-to-track costs of employee illness and absenteeism, the impetus for cultural change comes from the top.

The culture in Lenexa, though, didn’t require much of a change. “The organization was already thinking fitness and health and wellness,” Ratterman said. “This is a great way to reinforce that message with the team, but it’s not going to change trajectory—it’s just one more visible event for the staff to see, and continues to send the message that we believe in their health and fitness, as well.”


On Average, Nothing About These Gains Was Average

Fittest Execs and Fittest Companies Challenge again shows that workplace wellness programs, done right, can produce dramatic health gains across large populations

Through four years, no two Fittest Execs and Fittest Company Challenges have been entirely alike when it comes to the fields of contestants. Given the shifts in balances between men and women, those under 50 and those past that milestone, and those who enter in near-peak fitness levels compared to those urgently seeking strategies to regain control of their own health and wellness, field-wide comparisons can be problematic.

But here’s one statistic you can’t dispute: The recently concluded 2012–13 installment produced the highest overall level of health improvement in the four years of the competition: Nearly 83 percent of those who finished the recent Challenge with higher scores than they had going in—many participants enjoyed extraordinary results. And nearly all of them did it in impressive fashion: On the 150-point scoring matrix—with scores of 1 to 10 assigned for each health measurement—contestants on average came away with scores 14 points higher than they had when the Challenge started.

That’s within hailing distance of the 20-point threshold that area physicians say would qualify as an impressive achievement for an individual, let alone for a diverse field of hundreds of participants of all adult ages.

In some years, you can see the effects of broader dietary changes in the contestant field, as blood-lipid levels decrease dramatically.
This year’s group, however, was dominated by gym rats. By far, the biggest scoring improvements came in the areas of strength and flexibility measurements. Flexibility, which takes on increasing importance as we age (given the role in plays in maintaining balance), saw the full field improve, on average, by more than 63 percent in its sit-reach hip flexion testing, going from an initial reach of just over 11 inches to slightly less than 19.

Core body strength, as well, improved impressively, with average gains of 35.7 percent in the number of pushups performed at final testing, and 39.5 percent in the number of curl-ups.

Those impressive fitness numbers were accompanied by some significant field-wide increases in key blood lipids, too. Cholesterol levels fell, on average, 10.5 percent, while levels of the so-called “bad” cholesterol—low-density lipoproteins—fell 13.7 percent. And the ratio of cholesterol to high-density lipoproteins, where levels below 4.5 are considered optimal, decreased by nearly 12 percent, from an average starting level of 3.4 to an even 3.0.

Overall, health indicators increased for the entire field in 12 of the 15 areas measured.