On Monday, I was engaged in a typical 40-something conversation with my friends Dan and Arthur: our aging bodies and the increasingly difficult challenge of keeping our guts from hanging over our belt buckles. Mind you, the three of us stay active: Art is a runner and goes the gym regularly, Dan runs and recently took up cycling, I bike to work every day year round and do long training rides in the spring-summer-fall seasons. But at our age, it takes a few extra miles to work off those gingerbread cookies.


Ironically, we were talking about this while shoveling slice after slice of sausage, green pepper and onion pizza into our mouths. We were gathered with our families at a Chicago pizzeria for one last hurrah before ending our holiday vacations. Keeping with that theme, and knowing that the pizza joint had limited desert options, we marshaled our families down the street to Baskin-Robbins for dessert. Of course, we couldn't let the kids and wives eat ice cream alone, right?

With the gluttony of the holiday season behind me, it's time to get back on the wellness bandwagon. I need to start training for a 100-mile bike ride I'm doing this summer around Lake Tahoe. Also, I'm enrolled in a new wellness program that my employer launched as part of a restructured benefits package. So there are some incentives in place for me to get back in shape.

My company certainly won't be alone in trying to incent workers to adopt healthier lifestyles. As Helen Darling, president and CEO of the National Business Group on Health, told me in late December, "Employers are also increasingly moving from positive financial incentives for employees and adult dependents to take steps to improve their health and reduce risk factors to incentives that are more like penalties, such as having to pay more for smoking or lose access to the best plan if not actively working on improving health."

And the role hospitals play in improving the health and wellness of the surrounding community is likely to grow as well, says Pearson Talbert, president of Aegis Health Group. Talbert was in our offices Tuesday for an editorial visit and talked about the growth he's seeing in employers — and hospitals — trying to manage not just wellness, but, by extension, population health. He's seeing more partnerships between hospitals, insurers and employers in an effort to collect and analyze data that, in the end, can lead to better care for whole communities. The shift to value-based care delivery will only accelerate this trend.

Talbert dropped off a case study involving Mainstream Living, a mid-sized employer in Des Moines, Iowa, and Mercy Medical Center. Mainstream launched a wellness program in 2006. It partnered with Aegis and Mercy to assess worker health and engage them in wellness. In 2008, Mainstream's premium increases were a whopping 20 percent. By 2011, they stood at 4.46, the first time the number ever dipped below 7 percent.

But hospitals "are taking their medicine" as well, Talbert says. He sees a growing number of hospitals adopting wellness programs for their own staff. He cited Baptist Health System in Alabama. In 2008, Baptist launched a wellness program and saw significant improvements by 2010: a 1.4 percent reduction in hypertension, 3.4 percent increase in medication compliance, 1 percent decrease in overweight BMI, and more. The hospital's claims fell $600,000.

So as we move into the New Year, how are you working to improve the health and wellness of your workers and community? We'd like to hear from you. Email me at mweinstock@healthforum.com.

Matthew Weinstock is senior editor at Hospitals & Health Networks.