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Online DASH for Health program has Boston Medical Center employees on fast track to better physical fitness

Banner Staff

Asked why Boston Medical Center (BMC) offers its employees the innovative DASH for Health program as part of its benefits package, Megan C. Murphy falls back on an old saw that smart employers heed — and others ignore at their own peril.

“We hypothesize that workers who feel better work better,” said Murphy, DASH for Health’s program manager. “And we know that people who eat the DASH Diet feel better than they did before.”

Developed in 2001 by Dr. Thomas Moore, associate provost and director of clinical research at Boston University Medical Center, DASH for Health is an Internet-based health and fitness program intended to help regular folks improve their eating and exercise habits. Through the program’s Web site, participants can find useful information about food preparation, losing weight, getting fit and a host of other wellness issues.

According to Murphy, the program was created to fill a need for nutrition advice that’s both factual and practical.

“With more than two-thirds of the [U.S.] population currently overweight, there simply aren’t enough dietitians and nutritionists to cover the need,” said Murphy. “This program quickly and effectively gives nutrition and exercise advice to a large population at a very low cost.”

DASH for Health was first offered to a company as a corporate wellness program — a type of benefit that employers offer workers as a resource to help improve their health — in February 2002. BMC began offering it in September 2006.

The program is based on the “DASH Diet,” a balanced, easy-to-understand approach to eating designed by researchers from leading national medical institutions to help people lower their blood pressure in just 14 days.

The diet grew out of the landmark 1997 Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study, which showed cutting fatty foods, eating more fruits and vegetables, and using low-fat dairy products can not only help lower blood pressure as much as medications — it may also help reduce risks of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and diabetes. Since the study’s publication, the diet has received praise from the American Heart Association, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and numerous nationally recognized nutrition experts.

Rather than focusing on quick-fix solutions that may shed pounds but leave dieters vulnerable to poor-choice relapses, DASH for Health aims to help users get healthy and stay that way, teaching them about good eating habits, weight loss strategies and methods for reducing blood pressure that can be sustained for years.

Users sign up at the company’s DASH for Health Web site, which hosts individual user-specific Web pages where participants can enter key health information like weight, blood pressure, daily diet and amount of exercise, and monitor their progress from day to day.

Interactive “health calculators” measure everything from calorie intake and body mass index to their level and risk for heart trouble, giving users a simpler path to understanding important information and staying on their DASH diets. Daily “food questionnaires,” complete with vivid illustrations as visual aides, help users tally up how many servings of different foods they’ve eaten and identify areas where they may need to cut back or boost intake.

One of the major benefits of the online platform is the 24/7 access it affords users, allowing them to log their information and review new content when it’s most convenient for them, while still enabling them to get a hold of DASH’s team through the site’s “Send Us a Question” tool.

After users enroll in the program, they are sent reminder e-mails twice a week to let them know there are new messages available to read on the Web site. Subject matter differs each week, with topics like how to stay on your diet when eating in restaurants, starting an exercise program and dealing with nighttime snacking, among others.

The user-friendly approach is a natural extension of the diet’s basic principles, Murphy said.

“The great thing about the DASH Diet is that it is all about foods that anyone can find in any supermarket across America,” she said. “We tell people to focus on whole foods as opposed to milligrams of this or percentages of that … The diet itself keeps our message an easy one to deliver.”

And it seems that the BMC community is buying into that message: Since BMC began offering DASH for Health, a total of 1,245 people — including both employees and individuals over the age of 20 living with employees — have enrolled in the program, according to Murphy.

It makes sense that the prospect of losing weight and getting healthier would be appealing for an employee. But DASH for Health is also attractive for a forward-thinking employer like BMC because it has measurable fiscal benefits, too.

A clinical analysis of weight, blood pressure and food intake submitted by users when they first enrolled compared with updated information after one year in the program conducted by the DASH team at Boston University shows that people who enroll not only eat more fruits and vegetables, lose weight and lower their blood pressure — they also spend less on health care.

At a time when every business has its eye on the bottom line, those savings matter.

“We looked at the health claim data of people who used the DASH for Health program compared to those who did not,” said Murphy. “Over one year, people with high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol who were enrolled in DASH for Health spent almost $1,000 less [for health care] than those who didn’t enroll in the program.”

Murphy is quick to note that one of the drawbacks to a Web-based health program is that the lack of face-to-face interaction with users can make it difficult to help them take full advantage of its benefits.

“We are very up front about the fact that this is an opt-in program [where] users can choose their level of involvement,” she said. “Some users log in every day and track their weight, blood pressure and food intake. Others read messages sporadically and don’t ever enter anything on the Web site.”

But for those who have the motivation, the program can work wonders.

“What we do know is that the more individuals use the Web site, the better they do in their eating and weight loss efforts,” said Murphy.