Kimberly Romar
Kimberly Romar works out daily as a result of the kick-start she got in UCI's Commit to Be Fit program. It's one of many programs aimed at UCI's workforce that helped the campus garner a platinum rating from the American Heart Association. Steve Zylius / University Communications

Kimberly Romar had just completed the rigorous academic regimen required to simultaneously earn master’s degrees in public health and emergency services administration. Unfortunately, while exercising her brain, she had neglected her body.

“I was stress eating,” Romar says, “and when I was finished with the master’s programs, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘I don’t recognize that person.’”

She applied to and won a spot in the Commit to Get Fit program, one of UC Irvine’s employee wellness efforts that recently earned the campus a platinum-level Start! Fit-Friendly Company designation by the American Heart Association.

“I lost 56 pounds and went from a size 14 to a size 6. Best of all, my blood pressure is on the low end of normal. I’ll be 50 soon, and I take no medications,” says Romar, a clinical skills coordinator in the School of Medicine.

UCI received the Start! award for its many safety and wellness partnerships, including the Living Well program funded through the University of California Office of the President’s Be Smart About Safety initiative.

Events such as Know Your Numbers health screenings and the annual Wellness & Safety Fair also support a culture of health in the workplace. In addition, year-round educational resources – wellness lectures and healthy meeting guidelines, for example – are available to campus employees.

Most programs are open to all, but entrance into the Commit to Get Fit program that helped Romar – a version of which could be rolled out university-wide in the fall – was competitive; she had to demonstrate her determination to meet personal goals. Having just earned two master’s degrees at the same time was Exhibit A.

Once accepted, Romar received testing, dietary tips (more protein, please) and 10 weeks of cardio and strength training. She’s continued the regimen for almost a year and recalls with delight the time her son noticed that her arms have definition now.

“We offer a series of behavioral change programs: Step Up UCI, the pedometer-based walking program; Fuel Up UCI, the healthy eating program; and Limber Up UCI, a flexibility program,” says Jill Schindele, Campus Recreation director.

“On-site fitness programs such as ARC at the Park [tai chi and exercise classes in Aldrich Park] and Fit Squad [a mobile fitness cart and instructor that travel to high-risk departments for 30-minute workouts] are also provided free of charge to UCI employees.”

And fit employees mean a more efficient campus.

U.S. employers face increasing healthcare expenses as well as health-related losses in productivity that cost about $225.8 billion a year. Many American adults spend most of their waking hours at sedentary jobs.

Lack of regular physical activity raises their risk for a host of health problems, such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. Employers must absorb $12.7 billion in annual medical expenses due to obesity alone.

“By making wellness and safety a top priority, our work-related injury and illness days off have decreased by 42.85 percent from 2009 and 2010,” says Susan Pihl, benefits director for UCI Human Resources.

“Programs sponsored by our campus partners – RSIGuard [stretch break software], ZotWheels [a bike sharing program] and Peter’s Pick [a symbol identifying smart choices on campus], for instance – add to the healthy culture.”

It’s a win-win situation, notes Chancellor Michael Drake: “People – our students, faculty and staff – are at the heart of UCI’s excellence, and we’re committed to providing an environment that fosters their fitness so they can achieve their full potential.”