Topics: College of Applied Sciences and Technology, Alumni

June 2, 2008

When former Ball State volleyball standout Rhonda Gardemann Murr graduated in 1995, she held a 3.9 overall grade point average and a place on the GTE Academic All-America First Team. You'd think learning a few acronyms would be no problem.

Yet, figuring out some of the shorthand that's developed for campus programs and locations in the dozen or so years since she was a full-time student has been one of the early challenges for Murr as she returns to her alma mater to assume directorship of Ball State's new Health Fellows program.

"Just maneuvering around, learning where things are, how things are structured, what RB and AC mean… I can't imagine how anyone gets anywhere without knowing this stuff. But that's a big part of the excitement, too, about returning to campus," says Murr, who leaves Cardinal Health Systems after 11 years and finds her own office within the Fisher Institute for Wellness and Gerontology, in space above the Human Performance Lab (HPL).

"At least I know where that is!" she exclaims with short laugh.

She spent a good part of her two years earning a master of arts degree in exercise physiology from Ball State (1997) inside the university's widely-respected research center. Portions of HPL also figure in follow on plans for the inaugural Business Health Assessment that will introduce the Health Fellows initiative to the community this fall.

Endless possibilities

Already 14 interdisciplinary students have been selected to participate in the first class of a proposed worksite wellness minor being developed by faculty from across the College of Applied Science and Technology (CAST), Murr reports. They include students majoring in nutrition, nursing, technology, exercise science and business.

Starting with the fall semester, the group will work with wellness committee team members at five or six local businesses in conducting audits of each company's wellness programs.

"Our goal is to have the students, under the direction of faculty, act like consultants in analyzing what the health and fitness environment is in each place and then make recommendations about what each business can do to alter, adapt, change, start or augment their wellness programs," explains Murr.

In the face of escalating health care expenditures, more and more businesses are starting to look at health and productivity management as a way to help contain those costs, she says. Like the university's popular and successful Business Fellows initiative upon which the new program is modeled and, indeed, like most of the university's immersive learning opportunities, major components of the Heath Fellows program are connecting students and faculty with the local community and developing solutions to some of the real-world problems found there.

"The possibilities are endless," Murr says.

She notes that even seemingly simple changes - substituting the usual vending machine fare of chips and candy with more wholesome items such as fruit, for example - can contribute to creating a healthier work environment. At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, banning smoking (as Ball State recently has done) continues to be one of the biggest and most important actions that businesses can take to promote employee health and wellness.

"It's an educational process, not just for our students but for our clients, as well" says Murr. "Informing businesses that the worksite is an ideal setting for health education and promotional programs is our first step. On average, employees spend nearly 50 hours per week at work, which is why the workplace represents the perfect opportunity to address health and wellness issues."

Additional outreach

As the Health Fellows initiative takes hold, and in accordance with her own research background, Murr says an additional aspect of the program's outreach promises to be a risk assessment project that will allow students and faculty, in collaboration with community partners such as nursing homes or hospitals, to "improve or develop a direct measure of balance using new technology within Biomechanics."

In theory, this new technology - using devices known as force plates - could help identify clients/patients at higher risk of falls, explains Murr. According to the National Safety Council, roughly 15 percent of accidental deaths in the United States each year result from some type of fall (more than 17,000 in 2003). Tens of thousands more fall victims who survive suffer disabling injuries.

Murr believes that recognizing clients/patients who may be more susceptible to such mishaps can lead to interventions that address balance, prevent falls, spare suffering and conserve economic costs.

"So, in some respects, what we're looking to accomplish is fairly basic in terms of the Business Health Assessment," says Murr. "Although in other ways we hope to have a much more significant influence, not only in developing a new and unique worksite wellness minor that could attract many more students to this growing field but also in exploring new ways to help our partners and neighbors in the community lead healthier and safer lives."