published Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Chattanooga businessman heeds fitness wake-up call for himself and his employees

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    Charles "Ed" Rusk, director of finance and administration for Chattem Chemicals Inc., is also an accomplished triathlete.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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Local triathlete Ed Rusk likes spending his lunch hour on a heart-pumping bike ride up and down Lookout Mountain.

Pedaling up a mountain had never been a goal until six years ago when his older brother died unexpectedly.

“It was a wake-up call for me to take care of myself because I don’t believe he did,” said Rusk, director of finance and administration at Chattem Chemicals in St. Elmo. “I wanted to force myself to get healthy.”

So he ran his first triathlon five months after his brother’s death. Rusk said he chose the sport because he had background, although it was years behind him, in swimming, running and biking.

“I was a lifeguard in high school, so I could swim. I had biked for recreation, and I used to run a lot in high school. But over the years, I let myself get fat and lazy.”

That’s no longer the case. He now weighs 185, down from the 225 he weighed when he jump-started his athletic life.

“I’m back to wearing the same size pants I wore 20 years ago,” he said.

But it’s not just his own health he whipped back into shape. Rusk started a wellness program at work to encourage the chemical manufacturing company’s 78 employees to start living their own healthy lifestyles.

Q. Why did you start a wellness program at work?

A. As the head of finance and administration for our company, I saw our health insurance costs going higher and was frustrated. I decided the best thing we could do was to take a proactive approach to our own health care and start a wellness program.

Our employees had seen my transformation from a thick desk jockey who lost 35 pounds and four pant sizes in the process of becoming a triathlete over the past five years. After getting several comments about how watching me had motivated others in the company, I decided it was time to launch a wellness program.

While our wellness program is still in its infancy, I give a lot of credit to the Chattanooga Wellness Coalition for their ideas and support. The Chattanooga Wellness Coalition is an open group of local companies who meet quarterly to share ideas and success stories for their own wellness programs. After watching and learning from other companies for about a year, I decided it was time to launch.

Q. What was your co-workers’ initial response to the program?

A. We launched an eight-week Lose & Win Challenge with our insurer, United Healthcare, and had employees sign up voluntarily. Of our 78 employees, we had 42 sign up (54 percent) and then split everyone into two teams. In those 21-person teams, about 50 percent were actively participating.

We would meet every Monday and review a topic that would build weekly into a long-term lifestyle change. Topics ranged from exercising plans to reading menus, reading food labels and keeping journals. We discussed portion control, had a healthy potluck meal and shared recipes. We kept weekly tabs on weights and published the progress for the teams so there was a bit of competition.

In the end, the Red team lost 2.33 percent (101.5 pounds) of their body weight, and the Blue team lost 3.11 percent (139 pounds). Prizes were awarded for the Top 3 percent losers in each team.

Q. Is the program ongoing?

A. Our future endeavors will be to continue focusing on keeping people active by organizing a walking group during lunch and asking people to count their “wellness miles” to win prizes on a monthly basis. Our goal is to have our employees live healthy lives so they can be around a long time for their families.

Secondary to that, we want to show United Healthcare that we are taking a proactive approach to health care and hope to avoid any future large rate increases by having more healthy employees.

Q. What is your personal incentive for staying athletic?

A. I love the competition because it encourages me to set goals. If I can set aggressive goals for myself, it keeps me motivated and keep me out of the (backsliding) statistics bomb.

Q. Are you involved in community activities?

A. I’m treasurer of the Chattanooga Triathlon Club and, when I’m not competing in events, I volunteer in others. Our club likes to volunteer by helping staff other races because we like to be involved in the racing community as much as we can. I’m also fairly active in my church with deacon duties and on a board.

Q. You and your wife have been happily married for 21 years. To what do you credit the success of your marriage?

A. Our marriage is very important to us. We’re committed to it being long-lasting. I made a commitment a long time ago that when I wake up every morning that I would show my wife throughout the day how much I love her.

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/karennazorhill. Subscribe to her posts on Facebook at www.facebook.com/karennazorhill.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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