ELGIN — Shell Caldwell gained more than a few pounds in the first 13 years she worked at the Verizon Wireless call center.
Its not always the healthiest environment, she said. You sit at a desk all day and theres lots of eating going on.
But working at the call center in Elgin also allows a major health benefit the companys fitness center. Inspired by a nonflattering photo of herself two years ago, Caldwell found the balance between working and working out at Verizon, and she has lost 130 pounds along the way.
This time of year, when many people set new fitness goals, some are fortunate enough to be able to get healthier in the same building where they do their jobs. The American Heart Association in 2012 recognized 86 employers in South Carolina as Fit-Friendly Worksites, where employers go above and beyond to encourage employee fitness.
The heart association touts studies that indicate sick leave goes down 28 percent and health care costs go down 26 percent at companies that provide comprehensive health and wellness programs. But only 6.9 percent of employers offer such programs.
Verizon Wireless has one of the most complete programs, earning platinum status from the heart association. Caldwell can vouch for it.
After she decided she had to get in better shape, she went to the fitness center and Shelley Hinson, the centers health and wellness coordinator, helped her develop a workout routine and change her unhealthy diet. Quickly, Caldwell was hooked.
This place has changed my life dramatically, Caldwell said of the fitness center.
She leaves her home in the Lexington community of Gaston nearly two hours earlier than she used to, giving her time for a good workout before starting her shift at 9 a.m. Monday through Friday. Some days, she focuses on weight training with a little cardio. Some days, its all cardio.
Shes so addicted to the morning workouts, she considered coming in on vacation days. This is the best thing ever, to have this gym available to us, Caldwell said.
About 40 percent of the call centers 1,300 employees pay the fitness centers $15-a-month membership fee, according to Hinson. The fee gives them access to an array of cardio and weight equipment as well as classes and personalized training advice from Hinson and her assistant Gina Wessinger. The center is open 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Its particularly busy early in the morning and in late afternoon, but its hardly ever empty because of the centers many varied shifts. Employees often slip in short workouts during lunch breaks.
Verizon, which operates 44 health and wellness centers at its various work sites, encourages healthy habits in its workers. Even those employees who dont join the fitness center have access marked walking paths both inside the call center and outside. There also are smoking cessation classes, health screenings and free flu shots.
Hinson makes a recruiting presentation at new employee orientation sessions. She also stages Biggest Loser-type competitions and fitness challenges to lure more fitness center members.
John Killingsworth, 32, had been a member of the fitness center since 2006, but he wasnt an avid user until last January.
I went to the doctor, and he said I needed to get in better shape, said Killingsworth, who was hovering around 235 pounds at the time. So I got in better shape.
Combining exercise with improved diet, he lost 26 pounds in the first two month of 2012 on his way to a 35-pound total loss. He keeps it off by visiting the fitness center every time he comes to work. He typically comes in at least two hours before his work shift begins.
That way, if there was stress, Ive already worked it out, Killingsworth said. Im ready for the day.
And after being hit by the typical weight gain that hits men when their metabolism begins to change around age 30, he feel like hes 25 again.
Once I got into the habit, I really enjoyed it, he said. I feel great. If I compared myself to where I was last year, Im 100 times better.
While the fitness center has helped Caldwell and Killingsworth look and feel better, it has been a true life-saver for Charles Mims. In September, Mims had mysteriously lost weight and couldnt quench his thirst. He went to a doctor and found out his blood sugar was above 300 milligrams per deciliter, much higher than the healthy level of 70 to 80.
The way I was going, I was heading to the hospital, said Mims, 44.
So he went a different way to the fitness center. He started working out during his lunch breaks and putting in longer workouts on his days off. He also cut out junk food and adopted a healthier diet.
I was lethargic, Mims said. I like the way I am now much better.
By the end of the year, he had lost 60 pounds down to a trim 171. His blood sugar and blood pressure are back to normal.
Everybody who is diagnosed pre-diabetic should get a prescription for a membership to a fitness center, Mims said.