Andi Winkle has tried to lose weight before, but eventually, those lost pounds returned.
This time it's different for the Nicolet chemistry teacher, who is one of 32 Nicolet employees in their fourth week of a 12-week exercise program called "The Big Melt Down." The program brings Nicolet staffers together outside school hours to exercise in the Nicolet gymnasium or at the Harry and Rose Samson Jewish Community Center.
"This time it's a lifestyle change for me," Winkle said at the end of a recent workout. "I'm not so focused on losing 25 pounds in 12 weeks. For me, it's asking myself if I ate healthy this week and if I feel good about what I did workout-wise, knowing the rest will follow. This is the first time in my life I can say that."
The Big Melt Down, which has been offered to JCC members since 2009, was introduced to Nicolet School District this year, due to a partnership between the district, its health insurance provider WEA Trust, and the JCC. The program brings everyone – paraprofessionals, teachers and administrators – together for regular workouts and meetings with nutritionists.
"This has really been a bond-building experience for all of our staff," said Superintendent Rick Monroe before the start of his Tuesday afternoon workout. "We might see each other in the halls tomorrow morning and ask each other 'Are your thighs sore?' or 'How's your knee feeling?'"
These 32 employees are no longer allowed to eat cheeseburgers or nachos for lunch, and are encouraged by their nutritionists and physical trainers to opt for a healthier option – like sliced peppers and hummus. By going through the program together, the Nicolet team keeps each other accountable.
"You see what your colleagues are eating for lunch, so you can keep an eye on each other," Winkle said.
Half of the $500 program fee is paid upfront by the WEA Trust, and the other half is reimbursed to the employee and their spouse when they complete the program.
That $250 upfront cost, combined with the $250 carrot at the finish line, is only part of the motivation for special education teacher Molly Krychowiak. She and her husband, Athletic Director Kirk Krychowiak, have pledged to lead healthier lifestyles together by eating the same healthy meals.
While Molly is exercising at The Big Melt Down, Kirk stays home with the kids. If the program continues next year, it will be Kirk's turn to join the exercise program.
"We both want to be healthy and be together for a very long time – for ourselves and for our kids," Krychowiak said. "We thought this was a good way to start it, to get healthy so we're not taking medication when we're 70 years old."
WEA Trust spokesman Steve Lyons said the program is unique for the health insurance provider in that it is open to all employees. Most of the trust's other employee wellness programs target employee groups with specific medical issues.
Lyon said healthier employee lifestyles will also lead to healthier learning environments and lower health insurance costs.
"If we spot early detection of things like heart disease and early stage diabetes, those are very high ticket items – very high health care costs," he said. "We look at those huge costs versus preventive care. There's both a fiscal and a right-thing-to-do aspect to this."
The employee who loses the most weight at the end of the program wins a nine-month membership to the JCC. So far, the front-runner in the Nicolet pack has already lost more than 20 pounds.
For each pound lost in The Big Melt Down, the WEA Trust will donate a pound of food to the JCC Food Pantry, which is part of Milwaukee's Emergency Food Assistance Program.