CDC Opens Model Employee Fitness Center

The Associated Press
Monday, November 27, 2006; 8:26 PM

ATLANTA -- For decades, the nation's top public health agency has promoted exercise and healthy eating _ and offered its own employees high-fat cafeteria food and a lackluster fitness center. But no more.

In the last three years _ seeking to become a health model for other government agencies _ the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revamped cafeteria menus, wheeled out produce carts and renovated its office plazas to encourage walking.

But the centerpiece of those efforts is located in Building 20, a $21 million, five-story edifice on the eastern edge of the CDC's main campus. The new office building includes a new state-of-the-art fitness center on the main floor, which opened in June.

"We want this to become a model for companies and others to copy," said Tom Skinner, a CDC spokesman.

With 15,000 employees and contract workers and an $8 billion budget, the CDC is perhaps best known for investigating outbreaks of infectious diseases. But the public health agency also studies chronic diseases and funds a variety of measures that promote exercise and good nutrition.

An upgrade of the CDC's gym was long overdue, said some longtime employees, who can recall the days of nothing more than a basketball court and one Universal machine.

That gym was gradually upgraded. But even in recent years, it was hardly ideal.

"They had just three treadmills, and one would always say 'Out of Order,'" said Kelley Hise, 30, who works with CDC's food-borne disease tracking system.

The new center is certainly an improvement. The 16,000-square-foot center features a large light-filled training room and about $200,000 in equipment. That includes more than 70 strength-training and cardiovascular-priming machines, including eight treadmills, parked under television sets. And it's all free to employees.

There's more: A 12-bike indoor cycling room flashes images of the Tour de France and other race courses. An aerobics room has seven Gravity Training System machines, tilted, sled-like devices that work the entire body.

Two "quiet rooms," reminiscent of "Star Trek," allow employees to sit in zero-gravity chairs in a dark room listening to music and viewing a panel of changing pastel lights.

The architecture firm, Atlanta-based TVS, used bamboo and river stones to add extra, welcoming touches.

The gym also serves as a testing ground for new exercise equipment. Earlier this fall, a GameCycle _ a cross between a Nintendo video game and a hand crank _ was set up on the gym's main floor.

"It's a lot harder than it looks," said Tim Granade, a 54-year-old CDC microbiologist, after finishing a session on the machine in September.

So far, the GameCycle is the only piece of equipment that's been tested. But as CDC officials become aware of unique pieces of equipment, they will contact the manufacturers to see if they will loan devices to the CDC for evaluation, said Christie Zerbe, an occupational health and safety specialist who oversees the contractor, Computer Sciences Corp., which operates the gym.

The fitness center is clearly drawing customers. The number of employees getting exercise there has more than doubled, from around 250 a month in July-October 2005 to more than 600 a month for the same period this year, since the new gym opened.

Despite the improvements, the new fitness center isn't, at first glance, clearly superior to some top-level corporate centers or private gyms.

"They don't have a lot of free weights (here)," observed employee Michael Adams, a 40-year-old who was working out.

But what the CDC may lack in pig iron, it may make up for in efforts to create a healthy culture, employees said.

There is encouragement to use the gym during lulls in the workday, or to walk and have meetings in person. CDC officials pipe in music to stairwells, to increase the number of employees who take stairs instead of the elevator.

The CDC also offers weight-management classes, healthy grocery shopping seminars, health assessments, walking programs and other activities.

The agency also has improved its cafeteria fare and expanded its salad bars. Three years ago, the CDC began bringing in produce vendors so employees could buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Now, the produce carts visit three CDC campuses and boast daily sales of $2,000 to $3,000.

Whether these activities are paying off in a healthier work force is unclear. CDC officials say they haven't had a comprehensive study of employees' health.

(CLARIFIES in the 3rd paragraph the center is only part of the $21 million building. corrects in the 9th paragraph that 16,000-square-feet is the space for the fitness center, not the entire building.)

© 2006 The Associated Press