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Innovative Museum of Science programs help workers get healthier

Jennifer Sullivan, who has lost more than 70 pounds, tries out an interactive walking display at the Museum of Science.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Jennifer Sullivan, who has lost more than 70 pounds, tries out an interactive walking display at the Museum of Science.

Workers at the Museum of Science relieve stress once a month by floating to the outer reaches of the cosmos. They participate in fitness competitions, naming their teams after dinosaurs and cellular machinery. And their workplace weight-loss program, which comes directly from a local university, has helped them drop more pounds than similar efforts elsewhere.

Three-quarters of American employees now have access to wellness programs at their workplaces — screening for diabetes and encouraging smoking cessation and weight loss.

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But the programs offered at the Museum of Science are a little different — playful while also encouraging healthy behaviors.

“We make science and math fun. We thought we could do the same for wellness,” said Wayne M. Bouchard, the museum’s chief operating officer.

In its three years, the program has been more successful than even its organizers expected.

Planetarium quiet time, a half-hour show reserved for staff at least once a month, has been drawing more participants with every session. During the last show, soothing music accompanied a peaceful tour to the far reaches of the universe and back.

“It’s nice to have a half hour to sit back and think — or not think,” said Juli Goss, a research associate.

“It sort of puts things into perspective,” added Gail Jennes, the museum’s senior communications officer.

As many as half of the museum’s 400 year-round staffers participated in last year’s Active for Life challenge, a corporate competition sponsored by the American Cancer Society.

Employees climbed stairs, ran miles, and swam laps to earn points for teams with names like Mightychondria and Tyrannosaurarunalot.

“It was interesting around this time how much more stairway activity there was,” Bouchard said. “People you didn’t normally see going up the stairs — they may not have been going quickly, but they were deliberately changing their behavior. I still see that.”

The museum has also sponsored gardening sessions, led by its experts in the butterfly center, hosted a nutrition blog written by a staff scientist, and tested its Hall of Human Life exhibit on staffers — all in the name of wellness.

The workplace wellness program’s biggest success has been its weight-loss effort, which has helped employees shed 750 pounds over the last two years.

The vast majority of workplace wellness efforts offer some kind of weight-loss or fitness program, and about half provide stress management, according to a 2013 RAND Corporation “Workplace Wellness Programs Study.” Only about 20 percent of eligible employees nationwide participate in company-sponsored fitness programs and just 10 percent join weight-loss programs. The museum’s participation rates are much higher.

Nationally, people who lose weight through work wellness programs shed about a pound in the first year, and keep it off for at least three years, the RAND study found.

Many of the 57 employees who participated in the Science Museum’s program have done a lot better than that. Jennifer Sullivan, 46, of Reading, has dropped more than 70 pounds. Steven Monico, 60, of Haverhill is down 60 pounds. And Andrew Weisman, 47, of Wakefield has shed about 90 pounds, going from a tight size 42 to a comfortable 32.

All three have seen major health improvements: falling cholesterol levels, less pain, an end to snoring. (“My wife doesn’t need earplugs anymore,” said Monico, a shipper/receiver in the business services department.) And their energy levels are way up.

“I can make it through a 13-hour [work] day without being physically and mentally exhausted,” said Weisman, a shift leader in the visitor services department, who spends hectic days managing workers at the box office. “I can go home and I can take the dog out without a problem.”

The three have all inspired co-workers and family members to lose weight, too.

They all used a diet program called the iDiet, developed by Tufts University professor Susan B. Roberts.

“It’s free and all I have to do is walk down the hall. I have no excuses,” Sullivan told herself before joining.

The “I” stands for “instinct” and the diet aims to work with — instead of against — human instincts to feel full, to eat a variety of familiar foods, to prefer calorie-dense items, and to consume whatever is available.

“How do we help people cut calories, feel full, and enjoy what they’re eating? By working with that biology rather than ignoring it,” Roberts said. “If you compare our research with other workplace programs, we’re achieving six times more weight loss in the randomized clinical trials.”

Of the 20 employees who participated in the 12-week diet program the first time the museum offered it, the average weight loss was nearly 11 pounds — 6 percent of the employees’ starting weight. Two years later, those same employees have now dropped a total of 16 pounds on average.

The science museum is the first museum to adopt the program, though it is being used at 15 corporations with as many as 12,000 employees. iDiet is run by Instinct Health Science Inc., headed by Norman W. Gorin, a former member of the science museum board, and offers a program for use outside of workplace wellness programs at www.myidiet.com.

Aside from the benefits of having healthier employees and the team-building aspect of the museum’s wellness offerings, hosting the programs also help the museum’s bottom line.

“Healthy employees are happier and their health insurance statistics are better — I won’t lie to you,” Bouchard said. “It’s great to have healthy, happy employees, but there’s a real financial benefit to people being healthier, too.”

Nationally, however, there is some debate about how cost-effective wellness programs really are. Although some studies find a cost savings, RAND researchers in a January 2014 study found that companies only saved money if they focused on helping employees manage existing illnesses — not improving their overall wellness.

“Employers and policy makers should not take for granted that the lifestyle management component of such programs can reduce health care costs or even lead to net savings,” the study concludes.

The report did find that lifestyle programs can reduce missed days of work, which has been true for Sullivan. The environmental health and safety program manager said her sleep has improved, the pain from her osteoarthritis has eased, her chronic heartburn has lessened, and she can get more done now that she doesn’t have to wait for the staff elevator.

“I can keep up with the guys a little bit more,” Sullivan said.

Andrew Weisman, who has dropped about 90 pounds, manages the box office.

The Boston Globe

Andrew Weisman, who has dropped about 90 pounds, manages the box office.

Karen Weintraub can be reached at weintraubkaren@gmail.com.
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