he center—to be located on the top two floors of the parking garage in the clinical research building complex on Northwest 14th Street—will cost about $14.3 million to build, equip, and set up, and about $3.2 million a year to run. What justifies that investment?

“The history of medicine is to spend money on treatment—not prevention,” says Richard Iacino, assistant vice president for health program development. “As a society, we spend big bucks on acute care. Health care premiums are going up 10 to 15 percent a year. This hurts employers and employees both.”

The University of Miami spends more than $38 million a year for employee health care. The vast majority of this money is spent treating illness; relatively little is spent on prevention.

“There are decades worth of research that show we can impact our health with rigorous fitness programs,” Iacino says. “A study of more than 300,000 people in companies like DuPont, General Motors, and Chevron found that in a well-structured program where people actually exercised—not just talked about it—the cost-benefit ratio was 2.15 to 4.6. For every dollar spent, between two and five dollars was saved in acute health care plans. But this isn’t a walk in the park—you have to sweat to get results.”

Comparing School of Medicine workforce numbers to health statistics for the general U.S. population shows the extent of potential medical problems—many of which can be prevented. Of the 6,000 employees at the School of Medicine, these statistics show there are: 420 employees at risk for serious cardiac problems; 540 employees with some stage of diabetes; 1,620 employees at risk for medical problems associated with high blood pressure; and 3,000 employees at risk for medical problems related to excess weight. All of these risk conditions can be prevented or improved by regular physical activity.

“As one of the most respected research and medical institutions in the nation, we must lead by example,” says Jennifer Pinto, assistant director for employee wellness. “We are leaders in medicine, and we want to be leaders in prevention as well.”

Much of the School of Medicine’s medical, surgical, and pharmacy bill is related to cardiovascular disease, smoking cessation, weight management, and diabetic or pre-diabetic conditions. If the University gets as little as a 20 percent reduction in those health care costs, it will recoup close to $8 million annually.

Better fitness also translates into better productivity on the job. “We hope our facility will help with employee absenteeism and what’s known as ‘presenteeism,’ that is people who show up to work but really shouldn’t have and are functioning at a suboptimal level,” says Brian Glaspy, who coordinates wellness program development.

A personal trainer and competitive body builder, Glaspy will be involved in the daily management of the facility, and he has high hopes for spreading his fitness philosophy. “Wellness is total health—mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual,” he says. “Getting fit helps you in every aspect of your life. We want to be part of positive change for people.”

The mandate is to improve the health of the workforce and students at the University of Miami School of Medicine and Jackson Memorial Hospital. The wellness team hopes at least 7,000 people out of the pool of 15,000 from the medical campus will use the facility.

One person who knows she’ll be a regular is Mary Bartlett Bunge, Ph.D., a world-renowned investigator at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. She spends her days in state-of-the-art labs conducting studies on nerve cells that hold enormous promise for the eventual regeneration of the injured spinal cord, and now she’s eagerly awaiting the opening of this state-of-the-art facility.

“I feel very strongly about exercise playing an important role in maintaining good health, especially for those of us who are older,” says Bunge, professor of cell biology and anatomy, neurological surgery and neurology, and the Christine E. Lynn Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience at The Miami Project. “This facility will prevent illness. Personally, exercise gives me more energy and definitely helps keep my weight under control. I’m looking forward to becoming a member.”

When the center opens, each member will get an initial health risk assessment. A wellness coach will design a program to meet the member’s goals and help set up and guide the member through that program. There is the potential to use a sophisticated database system built into the exercise machines that can monitor—with the member’s permission—how hard and how long he or she worked.

According to Iacino, the facility will be a welcoming, open, and friendly place. “No exercise tyrants here,” he promises. “We want to encourage, not discourage people. We’ll help people team up with exercise partners if that’s what they’d like, and offer assistance in every way we can. Or we’ll respect their privacy and leave them be if that’s the way they prefer it. And the whole area will be completely handicapped accessible.”

When you first step into the new wellness center, there will be a bubbling brook with soothing sounds and lights to help stressed-out employees feel their tensions melt away. For some people, reducing stress means working out hard with heavy weights or pounding away to loud music in a spinning class. For others, it’s relaxing in the Jacuzzi and attending seminars on stress reduction. And for still others, it’s a combination of both.

The wellness facility will be a health education resource as well. Studies and practicums will be available for students of physical therapy, exercise physiology, and other related fields. The health impact the facility has on the workforce also will be tracked and could result in developing models for other employers to follow.

hether you spin, step, swim, pump iron, or do yoga, there will be a variety of classes,programs, and exercise options at the Wellness Center. The facility will feature weight rooms, cardiovascular equipment, exercise pools, sauna and steam rooms, lockers and showers, and a spa offering massage, facials, and other services. Members can participate in health and wellness classes, such as stress management workshops, cooking demonstrations, and team-building programs. To reward a rigorous workout or decompress from stress, members also will be able to enjoy healthy refreshments at the juice bar and café.

“We will personalize programs for our members—ours won’t be a one-size-fits-all package,” says Pinto, who has degrees in corporate-based health education, exercise physiology, and counseling and psychology. “We’ll educate and train our staff to take the time to get to know their clients, their personalities, their schedules, and demands on their time. We’ll pull experts from psychology, nutrition, and other departments—we have wonderful resources at our fingertips.”

Pediatric nurse Lilia Diaz, B.S.N., says personal attention is key. “I hope they will offer classes on a very basic level and keep them on that level. Too many classes start out basic, then get too advanced and discourage people,” says Diaz. “Better to keep a class basic and let people move on to a more advanced level when they feel ready, not when the instructor gets bored.”

As construction gets under way on the new wellness facility, many details are being finalized. Membership prices have not yet been determined, but will be market-competitive. Members must be active employees or students, at least for now. The facility will accommodate up to 500 members at a time during peak periods in the morning and evening.

“When the center is complete, it will be a premier facility designed to improve the well-being of our workforce,” says Iacino. “Healthy people are more productive on the job and at home, and that’s what we’re striving for—a positive work-life balance.”

Ronnie Londner, M.Ed. ’76, is a certified personal trainer and writes about health and fitness. Illustration by Jeffrey Pelo. Photography by John Zillioux.

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