Bus drivers lose pounds, earn cash, with RTA’s fitness program

The stereotypical image of the fat bus driver is getting a serious workout by the Greater Dayton Regional Transportation Authority.

Insider jokes about the “RTA spread,” or a guaranteed 50-pound weight gain soon after employment, are being countered with a fitness program that offers cash incentives that can earn employees up to $600 annually for meeting weight loss and other health goals.

RTA said the exercise and wellness program is shedding about 1,000 pounds a year from employees notorious for showing the effects of a work life spent behind a wheel.

It’s also helped lower high insurance premiums the agency pays for health care. It’s free to all employees and more than half of RTA’s 630 employees have signed up. It offers biometric screenings and healthy eating lessons, too.

Gene Rhodes said that while serving as Director of Human Resources he wanted to reduce rising health care costs.

“We had to do something to reduce those costs and help employees with health issues,” he said.”Many employees have lost significant weight and come off diabetic drugs.”

The cuts to health care costs have been so large that the agency opted to move from paying premiums to a self-funded system, or from paying estimated yearly costs upfront to paying actual claims plus an administrative fee.

In the first year of the program, employees lost 1,700 pounds. That’s a six pound average drop per participant. One lost 75 pounds.

Victor Hall, 55, a utility mechanic and nine-year employee, weighed 239 pounds and felt tired much of the time. He didn’t sleep well, either, and had plenty of aches and pains.”My hips hurt so bad, now they don’t bother me at all,” he said.

He dropped to 187 pounds, and the problems dropped with the weight. He’s now added back some pounds and weighs 200 or so, but the benefits still outweigh his efforts at shedding pounds.

Brooke Reece, 32, works at RTA’s call center. She uses a wheelchair to get around because she’s disabled by spina bifida. She lost weight and built up upper body strength. She no longer needs help to get from the floor to the chair. She dropped from 123 pounds to 107 and lost the high blood pressure readings.

With the loss of pounds comes more cash for the employees. RTA said it’s worth it. Employees can earn up to $600 in cash every year. To make that kind of a bonus isn’t easy. Getting the cash rewards requires employees to walk, exercise, lose weight or achieve other healthy living goals.

RTA’s savings on its health care insurance costs alone are in the millions, said the agency’s spokeswoman Jessica Heffner.

Julie Bonsall, the program’s 26-year-old coordinator, said she’d like employees to walk up to five miles a day. A Fitbit wrist device, purchased at half price by the employee through an RTA deal with the company, records the activity.

There are yoga classes, too. Trolley mechanic Keith Rihm, 61, keeps arthritis manageable with his workout. “It’s amazing for the aches and pains,” he said.

The program in December won accolades from the Ohio Department of Health, its Healthy Ohio-Healthy Worksite Gold Level Award. RTA was one of 68 workplaces statewide that earned the recognition. More recognition came from the American Heart Association, which selected RTA as a Gold Level Fit-Friendly worksite.

When she started with the program at its launch, Bonsall encountered a stream of skeptics around the office.

“People stopped by my office and said, ‘Good luck!’ I thought the job would be tough,” Bonsall said. Turns out, employees embraced the program quickly and began dropping pounds.

“People don’t want to be the overweight bus driver,” Bonsall said.

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