Colton Carter, an ISU senior in kinesiology and intern working with “Wellness Works,” takes baseline data of employees at the Barilla pasta plant in Ames. Photo by Wyeth Lynch.
Colton Carter, an ISU senior in kinesiology and intern working with “Wellness Works,” takes baseline data of employees at the Barilla pasta plant in Ames. Photo by Wyeth Lynch.

Iowa State helps businesses improve health, wellness of employees

Iowa State University’s College of Human Sciences is working on multiple fronts to improve the health and wellness of workers throughout the state, which in turn increases productivity and improves companies’ bottom line.

“As we can work together to get people making better decisions with regard to what they eat, how often they exercise, and what they spend money on, it will aid the economic recovery of the state,” said Tim Griesdorn, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

Griesdorn and Ruth Litchfield, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, who are both specialists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, are working with extension’s Center for Industrial Research and Service to improve outcomes for businesses across the state.

Improving wellness at manufacturing companies

They’ve gone into three manufacturing companies — The Graphic Edge in Carroll, Timberline Manufacturing, Inc. in Marion, and Rosenboom Machine & Tool in Sheldon — to do free health risk assessments for 180 workers. Half of the workers then received follow-up training and educational materials.

“Iowa State gave us this opportunity that we wouldn’t have invested the time and money in on our own,” said Peg Sanders, human resources director at The Graphic Edge. “It’s hard to quantify wellness benefits. Our health insurance premiums have been skyrocketing. It’s more and more proven that these efforts do make a difference.”

Studies show that for every $1 invested in worksite wellness, companies get a return on investment of up to $6 in increased productivity, as well as reduced absenteeism and turnover.

Sanders said one employee discovered high cholesterol levels during the risk assessment by Iowa State, and has since brought that under control. Another worker lost 27 pounds. The Graphic Edge has since kicked off its own company-wide wellness effort.

“It was really eye-opening for a lot of our employees,” Sanders said. “We all know we need to do a better job at taking care of ourselves. Sometimes it takes that little nudge to get you going, and that group effort and that support.”

The worksite wellness efforts are unique because they include six months of intervention at the business, then wait another six months to see what changes really stick, Griesdorn said.

Kinesiology students help Ames businesses

Students and faculty in the Department of Kinesiology are also assisting local businesses in worksite wellness efforts. About 20 students have gone into businesses over the past five years through “Wellness Works,” a student-led service learning effort.

The students have done much of their work on the Iowa State University campus. But they’ve also established partnerships with the National Center for Animal Health and Barilla pasta, and are building partnerships with the Iowa Department of Transportation, the ISU Foundation, the Renewable Energy Group, and Webfilings.

“Some of the local companies don’t have a full staff of people to run a wellness program,” said kinesiology professor Greg Welk. “We’re able to fill that role and provide some programming and help them sustain it.”

One component of the Wellness Works program run by kinesiology students and faculty involves an eight-week behavior change program that helps people become more active, lose weight, or improve their diet. Employees receive a Sensewear activity monitor that tracks their behaviors, and receive either health coaching or text message prompts to help them make changes.

“The companies benefit by having somebody come in and help their employees,” Welk said. “We benefit by having a place to do research.”

In 2011, Iowa made a five-year commitment towards becoming the healthiest state in the country by 2016. The state now ranks No. 9. Pamela White, dean of the College of Human Sciences, is part of the advisory board for the Healthiest State Initiative.

Iowa State University also has a campus group called Healthiest ISU Initiative that is working to support efforts by faculty, staff, and students to adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles. That effort is linked to the Healthiest Ames Initiative. Creation of a broader faculty and staff wellness program is under consideration.


Greg Welk, professor, Department of Kinesiology, Iowa State University, 515-294-3583,

Tim Griesdorn, assistant professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach to Families, 515-294-7452,

Ruth Litchfield, associate professor, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach to Families, 515-294-9484,

Lynn Campbell, Communications Specialist, College of Human Sciences, 515-294-3689,

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