Resolving to be well

As 2014 begins, the BeWell program is entering its seventh year. We caught up with the founder and co-director of BeWell, Eric Stein (senior associate athletic director of the Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation), to discuss New Year’s resolutions and the culture of wellness at Stanford.

Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year?

Yes. I know I don’t pay enough attention to weight training, so my resolution was to commit to it two times a week. 

How is that working out so far this year?

[Laughter]  WelI, I worked out yesterday.

New Year’s resolutions have mixed success. Other than January 1, when do people typically resolve to make lifestyle changes? 

I believe that change occurs when it becomes personal. I remember seeing our former athletic director, Bob Bowlsby, a few years ago, and I told him he looked healthier than I’d ever seen him. He told me he was at the healthiest weight of his life because he had just become a grandpa. He told me he looked in his granddaughter’s eyes and made a commitment to dance with her at her wedding — when she was 30.

This experience is in contrast to a traumatic event, like having a heart attack — a type of experience that will often bring about an “aha” moment. But it saddens me that the realization can come too late. Often the warning signs are there, but people believe it won’t happen to them.

How does the BeWell program fit into these transitional moments? 

When we started the BeWell program seven years ago, I took the SHALA and “failed breakfast.” As you know, after you take the SHALA you get a green circle for areas where you are doing well, a yellow circle for the areas you can improve and a red circle for problem areas. I got a red circle for not eating breakfast, which I considered a failing grade, or an “F” — and I’ve eaten breakfast ever since. I think the SHALA often tells us things we already know, but seeing it in print can make us do something about it.

What do you say to people who feel they are too busy to exercise?

I encourage them to look at individuals such as the Provost, who makes it a point to exercise on a regular basis. The Provost schedules his workout in his calendar as a meeting that he must attend.  

If people realize that the upper administration feels this way, perhaps they won’t feel bad taking a break to exercise during the day. The perception is that the hard worker is the one who doesn’t get away from his or her desk. I’d love to see that perception redefined as the hard, smart worker is the one who takes a break to exercise and comes back reenergized. 

Has the BeWell program grown over the years?

Yes! One measure of that growth is that participation in the SHALA has grown from approximately 6,700 people in 2008 to 10,000 people in 2013. We’ve grown every year because we’ve listened to feedback and modified the program based upon the participants’ needs and interests. For example, this year, we have added more Berry options so participants can focus on a specific wellness area. But it's not all about numbers. It's about the change that happens on the inside. It's not “our numbers are up so it's been a success” or “our numbers are down so it has failed.”

What challenges lie ahead?

The first challenge is to make sure we look closely at the data and see what it is telling us. The self-report SHALA tell us that we are improving each year. The biometric (health screening) reports will give us an even clearer view of what is happening. All the reports tell us that people involved in the program are healthier than before the program was introduced. Choosing to be involved helps people take important steps with their health, which impacts their families and work units.

What changes would you like to see?

At Stanford, I would still like to be more successful at connecting with the unconnected. Last year, nearly 10,000 employees took the SHALA, which means we were still missing 3,000 to 4,000 employees. Our challenge is to reach out to these employees in an appropriate way and help them enter the BeWell arena. We know they have reasons for not participating and we would like to help break down those barriers.

On a larger scale, I’d like to tackle obesity. I took my daughter to a garage sale on a recent Saturday and she bought a Life magazine from the 1960s. She asked me why everyone in the magazine was smoking. She wanted to know why everyone thought smoking was OK. Kids today can’t understand why anyone ever smoked. Why would you stick that thing in your mouth? I dream that we will feel the same way about fast food in the future.  

America spends more than anyone in the world on health care, but we are only ranked the 29th healthiest population in the world. That gap relates largely to lifestyle choices. America needs to realize that short-term choices can lead to long-term issues and lifestyle decisions are up to each individual.

During your tenure here, what has surprised you most?

Without a doubt, the unwavering support of the university has come as a welcome surprise. Other universities struggle to get support for wellness programs. We, on the other hand, are fortunate to have the consistent support of the Provost and upper administration, which has allowed us to receive the support that other schools can only dream about. This support has allowed us to create a culture of wellness at Stanford and to create a feeling that the university cares more about employees as people rather than just as workers measured by what they produce.

I've also been surprised by the tremendous connection with colleagues across campus. I think the world of all the other wellness advocates, particularly Wes Alles and the HIP program, who have been wellness leaders at Stanford and around the world for over 30 years.

Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna Ryan.