Verizon committed to corporate wellness

Bryan Ganey (left) holds up pants he used to wear with the help of Anthony Smith (middle) and Jeffrey Sweet, the coaches at the Verizon Wireless Health and Wellness Center in North Charleston.

I’ve been covering the local health beat for more than a decade and can honestly say that Bryan Ganey’s weight loss story, and I’ve heard more than a hundred of them, is the most impressive and inspirational.

In a nutshell, Ganey was in a bed at Trident Medical Center in June 2010 suffering from a near fatal pulmonary embolism when he decided that he needed to make a major change in his life.

At the time, the 37-year-old’s 5-foot, 8-inch frame was carrying a whopping 577 pounds.

Ganey knew bariatric surgery was an option, but he chose not to have it.

He knew he was a compulsive overeater and was “only interested in a long-term, sustainable solu- tion.”

So he cleaned up his diet — eating vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meat and drinking lots of water — and started exercising within his limits.

Today, the 40-year-old weighs 199 pounds.

Think about that. He lost 378 pounds.

Recently, to inspire others with little hope, he chronicled his experience in a new paperback and e-book, “Impossible: How I Lost Nearly 400 Pounds Without Surgery,” available on

Yet while Ganey took charge the old-fashioned way, he had help from, of all places, his workplace.

Ganey works at Verizon Wireless in North Charleston, which has two full-time health and wellness “coaches”and a 2,200-square-foot fitness center.

“The coaches played a big role in my journey,” says Ganey of Anthony Smith and Jeffrey Sweet.

“Ultimately, I had to do the work. But I can’t stress enough how important it was to learn how to work out correctly,”says Ganey, noting that initially he was in no condition to work out in the gym.

“They taught me to build in those days of rest and to make sure I wasn’t doing too much. They also were there to motivate me and push me to work out on days I would rather be doing anything else.”

Verizon is a model for corporate wellness. Across the nation, it has 44 fitness centers with a “membership” of 16,925. The cost to employees is $15 a month, which includes use of the centers, personal training, fitness assessments and annual wellness checkups.

Most fitness centers open between 5-6 a.m. and close between 7-8 pm, making it convenient to exercise before or after work, during lunch, or squeeze in two or three 10-minute sessions throughout the day.

Kelly Zanczewski, associate director for health and wellness at Verizon’s headquarters in Basking Ridge, N.J., stopped in Charleston last week before speaking on worksite wellness to an American Heart Association conference.

She shed some light on several issues I was curious about regarding corporate wellness, most notably why some companies go for it and others don’t.

In a word, it’s leadership.

Verizon’s wellness program started in 1990 not because the number crunchers were looking for “return on investment” but because the executives at the company headquarters, then located in Bedminster, N.J., started exercising at work and realized what a difference it made in their productivity and morale.

It spread and grew from there. But unlike some companies, Verizon went deeper. Instead of hiring coaches from outside the company, they hired them as full-time employees who are 100 percent committed to taking care of staff.

Granted, not every Verizon center has a fitness center and coaches. Scale does matter. Zanczewski says the parameters are at least 600 employees and space. The North Charleston center has 1,025 employees in a massive building that was the former Montgomery Ward department store at former Charles Towne Square mall.

What perplexes me is that the participation rate in the Verizon centers that have fitness clubs ranges between 30 and 40 percent. I’d think it would be higher, especially at the all-inclusive $15 a month and having showers.

“Every day, we think about how we can reach out to more employees. It’s a great benefit that they should take advantage of,” says Zanczewski, noting the convenience of the fitness centers being on site.

In North Charleston, participation is 355 employees, or 34.6 percent. I visited the fitness club and it’s on par with regular private clubs. It even has locker rooms.

The participation rate seems natural for coach Jeffrey Sweet, noting that some people with children may not be able to spare the time or that other people may prefer to belong to a club somewhere else.

“Return on investment” remains the stumbling block for many businesses today. How can wellness be reflected in the bottom line? Some remain skeptical, despite studies quantifying the benefits and the anecdotal evidence that exercise increases productivity.

Generally, studies show wellness programs pay dividends.

According to the 2007 “Proof Positive: An Analysis of the Cost-Effectiveness of Worksite Wellness,” companies that invest in wellness have 26.5 percent lower health costs, 25.3 percent fewer sick days, 40 percent reduction in workers’ compensation costs and 24.2 percent lower disability management costs.

Zanczewski says Verizon is looking into return on investment numbers, despite the fact it played no role in the origination of the wellness program.

“Early on, no one was asking for numbers. Now, with more focus on a national level from preventative medicine, there are more studies on ROI,” says Zanczewski. “Generally, we have absenteeism and sick days going down, decreasing health claims and certainly improved morale.”

Meanwhile, Verizon also is embarking on creating wellness programs by determining what health risks are generally more prevalent in the regions where centers are, such as diabetes in the South.

“It’s a new effort and something we’re looking at in 2014 and 2015. We have an idea of the concerns, but we want to look at the statistics to pinpoint problem areas. Is it hypertension, diabetes, or musculoskeletal claims, and then we’ll drive campaigns to toward those issues.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postand