A county's battle against the bulge

Fliers posted around Durham County offices pose a sobering question: Is your weight hurting you?

“Ouch,” 160 workers have responded.

The Durham County staffers, from sheriff's deputies to the clerks who issue birth certificates, are being encouraged to take a look at their waistlines – together – in a friendly competition among departments. So far, participants have shed more than 200 pounds in weekly weigh-ins.

The 12-week competition lasts into October. It's the county's latest effort to encourage its 1,900 staffers to be healthier and more productive.

Last year, the county opened a free employee wellness clinic inside its main building. There, workers can set up an appointment with a nutritionist. Also last year, the county added 30 minutes to the standard hourlong lunch break so employees could get some midday exercise, many opting to walk around downtown.

“In the long run, their energy level is going to be better, and they're going to be better employees for us,” said County Manager Mike Ruffin.

As Americans spend more time at work, employers are looking for creative ways to improve their workers' health, from gym discounts to on-site aerobics. It's in their financial interest.

“If employees get their health screenings, exercise and maintain a healthy weight, they're going to use their health benefits less, which saves money,” said Diane Shepherd, a benefits manager for Orange County, where among other initiatives, workers have received pedometers.

Durham's initiatives all have come under Ruffin's tenure, which started about eight years ago. But this time, Ruffin can cheer his employees on in their quest for a better diet and more exercise and not feel like a hypocrite.

Ruffin said he couldn't even cross his legs about six months ago because his belly protruded into his lap. At his heaviest weight of 320 pounds, he struggled to tie his shoes, he said.

“It's hard for me to be promoting wellness when I'm one of the sickest and fattest,” Ruffin said.

But thanks to a weight-loss surgery in February, Ruffin recently weighed in at 236 pounds, an 84-pound loss. He got help from a restrictive band placed inside his abdomen and around his stomach to help him feel full with less food.

Ruffin experienced severe complications from the band and had to have it removed, taking a two-month absence to recover from a serious infection. Despite the setback, he continues to lose weight through a regime of exercise and calorie-counting, he said.

Deborah Morris, a staffer for Durham's Register of Deeds, has lost a pound, she said. On a good day, she's exercising more than an hour.

Morris, 52, is competing on a team with six other women in her office.

“When you're doing it by yourself, you can kind of cheat a little bit,” she said. “But not when you're part of a team.”

On Oct. 30, the county will announce the winners in the contest. The team and individuals with the biggest loss will gain bragging rights and an “after” photo in an employee newsletter.

“We're trying to plug in to whatever it takes to get people healthier,” said nurse practitioner Stephanie Turner, who runs the county's wellness clinic.