One and a half billion: That’s how many steps teachers and other staff participating in the Douglas County School District’s pedometer challenge logged from December through the start of April.

Douglas County teachers participate in a hula hoop contest as part of a wellness challenge program in the school district.

Or, put another way, they burned through enough calories to equal 1,732 pounds.

Or, put another way, they avoided the equivalent of 2,215 days of passively-watched television.

School officials haven’t yet calculated how many fewer staff absentee days that equates to, or how much savings in health insurance premiums, but they’re sure it’s substantial.

More difficult still is assessing how much more learning was imparted in classrooms because of all the extra exercise teachers are getting, but they’re quite sure that that is being impacted as well – for the better.

The pedometers log steps taken as well as time spent in movement, and transmit this data wirelessly to a website, so each participant’s total is updated continuously.

So far, of the district’s 6,500 employees, almost 4,000 are taking part, either in the pedometer challenge or some other district-sponsored fitness activity. It’s all part of Douglas County’s goal of becoming the healthiest school district in the nation by 2015.

It’s a campaign being waged on many fronts, with a variety of strategies, all focusing on getting students and staff to eat healthier and get more exercise. So far, much of the wellness initiatives have been focused on the staff. For example:

  • Line dancing classes for district staff are planned throughout April and early May at Castle View High School in Castle Rock.
  • Traiblazer Elementary in Highlands Ranch hosts a Weight Watchers at Work program on Tuesdays after school.
  • Mountain View Elementary in Parker has a “Staff Fitness Club,” offering one-hour exercise classes twice a week, led by the physical education teacher.
  • During April, the district is hosting a “Healthiest School” competition that combines points for minutes spent exercising plus points for improving a school’s “food environment,” whether that means removing candy dishes, discouraging bake sales, getting rid of sodas or other good ideas.
  • Each day, staff are emailed “the daily challenge,” involving some fitness-type activity, such as lunge walking or a yoga movement, and are encouraged to incorporate that activity into their day.

Participants are eligible to win prizes – things like exercise balls, iPods, water bottles or other fitness aids. But next year, the district is looking to provide financial incentives for staff who take part in wellness programs.

“A lot is percolating right now,” said Brian Ewert, director of human resources for the school district. “Really, teachers have the most impact on kids. When kids see teachers eating right, getting snacks out of the classroom, not bringing candy bars or cupcakes, and they see that that’s happening all across the system, there’s an upswell of real attention.”

Wellness awareness spilling into classrooms

Marcia Decker, a first-grade teacher at Franktown Elementary, said the emphasis on staff wellness is spilling over into her classroom. “My children are rooting for me,” said Decker, who has logged as many as 20,000 steps in a single day on her district-issued pedometer. “We’ve done more moving in our classroom as a result. And the health of our staff has improved noticeably. There are people in our building who’ve lost 20-plus pounds.

“The exercise has helped all of us with our stress levels in these uncertain times,” she added. “We’re all dedicated to our jobs, and so we often don’t think about taking time for ourselves. But this wellness competition has helped us.”

Story continues after video of teacher Marcia Decker talking about the wellness program at her school.

John Zimmerman, who works in the district’s business office, has lost 30 pounds since he enrolled in the wellness program and got his pedometer. “I watch what I eat, and at lunchtime, I go for a walk,” he said. “Then I go 4 miles on the treadmill at night. I’ll get 15,000 or 16,000 steps a day. I like going online to see just how many steps I’ve gotten.”

Andrew Patch, an art teacher at Cougar Run Elementary in Highlands Ranch, said competing with other teachers on behalf of his school has kept him focused on his exercise regimen. “I try to get 250 minutes of movement a day,” he said. “I can tell, I’m getting in a lot more minutes now, and a lot more steps.”

He also hasn’t sat in his chair in his classroom for months. Instead, when he sits, he sits on an exercise ball provided by the district.

Looking at the benefits of good health

The man behind much of the activity in the school district is Andrew Sykes, chairman of Health at Work, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in employee wellness programs. Sykes is an actuary, and he looks at wellness programs from a cost-benefit perspective.

“Almost all wellness programs target the obese, the diabetic, the asthmatic or other at-risk populations,” Sykes said. “They make valiant attempt to enroll people in wellness programs to live longer and have more energy, but frankly, most people don’t respond to those invitations because they hear the invitations as if they’re being targeted.

“In Douglas County, we’re trying to do things differently. We’re not saying ‘Hey, all you fat or diabetic teachers, enroll in this so you’ll live longer.’ We’re saying ‘All teachers, enroll in this so you’ll be a better teacher.’ We’ve found that people are more likely to participate if you give them a reason that’s more consistent with their career aspirations rather than if you target their health condition.”

Sykes sees the teachers simply as the first wave of a movement that eventually will encompass the whole county. “We’re enrolling 7,000 employees to become agents for change for 60,000 students,” he said. “And those 60,000 students are themselves going to be agents of change for health habits in their families.”

Sykes notes that only 30 percent of health problems in the United States are attributable to inherited conditions or to the quality of care received when a person is ill. The majority of health issues are created by our own bad habits.

“If most health failures come from health habits, and most health habits are learned from parents and teachers, then to solve the U.S. health crisis, we have to stop – in one generation – the cycle of inherited bad habits.”

Sykes said removing soda pop from school vending machines is a good step – but it needs to be out of the teachers’ lounge as well. Removing candy from vending machines is positive, but teachers and parents ought not then bring in sweets for class celebrations. “It’s a whole mindset that needs to be changed,” he said.

The results will impact bottom lines as well as waistlines, Sykes said. Teachers who are fit will pay less for insurance and will cost the school district less. The district pays Health at Work typically between $10,000 and $30,000 a month to promote the various fitness initiatives. But Sykes said Douglas County has saved $30 for every $1 spent on wellness promotion.

Healthy teachers will create healthy schools, he said. Healthy schools will create healthy students, who will create healthy families, who will create healthy communities.

“With a healthy community, it becomes much easier to produce great results in the schools,” Sykes said. “Along with a good reputation comes a desire for people to move into your community, and property values go up.”