Whole Foods Employee Athletes Balance Work, Workouts, and Life

By austinfit – November 4, 2011

If you work at Whole Foods, there’s no excuse to not attain peak health. In 2009, the company added a new core value: “Promoting the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education.” In a visit with seven employees, it became very clear that in just two years since the new core value was implemented, these folks made positive changes, with measurable outcomes—and they’ve stuck with it.

Matt DeMartino, 25, a cyclist and runner, won this year’s Green Trek Challenge—a four-month competition between and within Whole Foods corporate regions that includes sporting and non-sporting activities that promote well-being, vitality, a healthier lifestyle, community service and lowering your carbon footprint. Participants in the challenge earn points through exercise, alternative travel, community service, and healthy eating. Each week individual employees track their miles, exercise time, healthy eating points, alternative transportation trips, and community service by logging on to the company’s Green Trek site and posting their points.

“I moved here from Savannah [Georgia],” DeMartino said. “I knew I wanted to work for Whole Foods, and the training weather is always pretty good. I came here specifically for running and cycling.” He races competitively in both sports; his next event is the Savannah Rock ‘N Roll marathon this month. A healthy eater, DeMartino was a vegan for five years but changed since moving to Texas. “I didn’t want to not enjoy barbeque,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m doing this for the wrong reasons.’” But he says he feels a lot better when he “eats clean,” and now eats mostly gluten-free and unprocessed foods. He adds, “I don’t really exclude anything from my diet.”

Julie Herron, 45, has done six Ironman triathlons and finished the 2011 Chicago Marathon last month. She began doing triathlons at 35 and finished her first Ironman at 37.

“What I’ve learned from doing all these [Ironman races] is that if someone tells you it’s a beautiful and scenic race, that means it’s hard,” she said. “Watch out for those.” She said her favorite Ironman course was Idaho—a race she described as “scenic.” She said Lake Placid was tough: “You’re in the Adirondacks, and hills on 620 and Mount Bonnell just don’t prepare you for long climbs.”

Herron said her nutrition has changed a lot. “I didn’t think that I ate badly, but race nutrition and daily nutrition are totally different. It’s hard to taper the eating after the event.” Working at Whole Foods has provided “overwhelming” healthy options, but with some guidance she made a few changes and saw quick results.

“I had high cholesterol when we started the testing, and modifying a couple of things in my diet brought it down to 168,” she said. “Little things I was eating that I just didn’t notice. I talked to Rip [Esselstyn], told him what I was eating, and found out it was excessive wine and excessive white chocolate mochas every morning. Those are the only things that were excessive that I cut out, and it worked.”

Herron found that diet impacted more than her cholesterol. “I noticed my joints hurting,” she said. “I used to eat a lot of cheese, with my wine. I cut out dairy and my joints stopped hurting.” She’s even got her husband eating better. “We cut out sugars and he cut out sodas,” said Herron. “I started eating kale from the raw bar because they smother it in guacamole. Now I can eat it, just put a little salt on there, and now my husband will eat kale too. He’s embraced the whole thing. It helps when your partner eats the same way.

“I like Austin because, unless you have a mental block against exercise, there’s always something to do here,” she said. “I could never leave Austin because of Barton Springs. This weekend I was in San Diego and it was really nice, but they don’t have Barton Springs.”

Joseph Malone’s story is one of transformation. Malone started running two years ago, began cycling 16 months ago, and has been doing weight training for about a year now.

“After work I run or go to the gym,” he said. “Riding is typically on the weekends, usually 50 – 70 miles.” Malone started running after he noticed some weight gain. While the exercise helped, he hit a plateau and couldn’t lose those last 10 pounds.

“I was getting frustrated,” he said. “I was basically running every day.” That’s when he focused on his eating—not as a diet but as a lifestyle change. “I saw a friend downstairs who was a trainer and asked him what I could do and he said, ‘Cut out the sugar, cut out the sodas.’ My diet has really done a 180. My friend Vanessa referred to me as Meat-n-Potatoes,” he laughed. “I would say my health IQ has definitely increased.”

Marcio Menezes, 32, is a native of Brazil who came to the U.S. on a swimming scholarship. Menezes continues to swim six days a week and competes in U.S. Masters Swim meets. In 2009, he set two world records, in the Men’s 400 Free Relay and the Mixed 400 Medley Relay, both in the 120-159 age group. “One of them still stands,” he says.

As an elite athlete, nutrition management was not new to Menezes. “I had a nutritionist growing up because of swimming,” he said. “I train so much that I can eat anything. But since I started working here I changed the way I eat, which I never thought would happen. [Now] I follow the plant-based diet; I almost never eat meat or dairy.” It was after Dr. Joel Fuhrman spoke to Whole Foods employees two years ago that Menezes changed his ways.

“Once he showed the facts and why you should change and the benefits, I was shocked, like, wow really? I changed the same day,” he said. “That was two years ago. I never thought I would go there [to a plant-based diet].”

Carol Ashmore, 42, grew up a star soccer player; she played from age 4 to age 35, rooming with Mia Hamm once at a national camp, and winning an NCAA National Championship with her team from Barry University in Miami, Florida, where she was on a soccer scholarship.

“I was playing [soccer] when I first started working at Whole Foods,” she said. “As far as training, I could go for runs at lunchtime or leave work early to go for a run. As soon as I turned 35, I switched over to running due to injuries and the wear and tear of soccer.” Now she runs marathons and loves to hike. Her favorite marathon is the Austin marathon, “I can’t not run it. It’s what you do.” For the past couple of years all her vacations have been hiking on the Appalachian Trail. “That’s a goal,” she said, “to go from start to end. I started at the southernmost terminus and I hike as far as I can on whatever vacation, and wherever I come out is where I pick up.” To date, she’s about 250 miles in: “Gatlinburg, Tennessee is where I came out last. I have travel planned to go back in early November for ten days so I should be able to knock out another 140 miles or so.”

Ashmore said her diet has improved since she moved to the offices above the downtown Whole Foods store. “I used to eat junk,’ she said. “What’s changed for me is my breakfast, lunch, and dinner used to be horrible, and now it’s just my dinner. Two out of three, I’m almost there.

“I learned to eat healthy working here,” Ashmore explains. “I eat a lot now on the perimeter of the store versus packaged foods.” She credits the education available through Whole Foods. “The ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) has made a big difference, looking at what your nutritional value is divided by calories. Now I eat more spinach.” She acknowledged she’s had to figure out a way to prepare it so she would like it.

“I exercise because I love it, the endorphins, it’s such a feel-good thing,” she said. “And what’s happened is when I eat [healthy foods] I feel so much better about myself.”

Lisa Lavender, 48, is an all-around athlete, competing in track, indoor and outdoor soccer, martial arts, even outrigger canoe teams. “I have never done the same exercise for long before I switch,” she said.

“Coming here [to work at Whole Foods] definitely changed the way I eat,” she said. “Knowing some of the ingredients we ban, like aspartame, I started paying attention to what organic means and to the fact that the way we handle our food is a lot different.”

While she ate a vegetarian diet for seven years, she’s added meat back in. Lavender has made other changes as well: “I noticed my joints were aching and the minute I stopped caffeine, [the pain] stopped.”

Patrick Darragh, 38, holds a “Cat 4” (Category 4) competitive cyclist ranking and is a top-ten marathoner who placed eighth and ninth in the Austin Marathon in 2009 and 2010. In 2007, he ran the Boston marathon in 2:45.

Darragh won the Cat 5 and Cat 4 state time trials for a couple of years; since he got married last year, he has only been racing the “Driveway Crit,” a racing series sponsored by Pure Austin Fitness and Holland Racing that pits emerging and established cyclists against each other for very serious racing.

“Whole Foods is really cool,” Darragh said. “They let me go on Thursdays so I can do my hour or so of racing.” Darragh rides his $6,000 racing bike to work, 16 miles each way, and stores the bike in his cubicle. “Sometimes I ride 25-30 miles in the morning and then I go 16 [miles] straight home.” He says commuting by bike takes about the same time as driving and sometimes is faster than sitting in his car during rush hour. When he gets to work he can shower, but his cycling gear, which he keeps in a file cabinet during the day, resulted in his cubicle neighbor putting a candle between their workstations.

Since working at Whole Foods, Darragh’s become a vegetarian. It was not an easy switch: “I ate veggie burgers with bacon on them for a while.” It was when the company brought Rip Esselstyn in to consult with employees that Darragh made the change permanent. “I read the Engine 2 book and got a kick out of it,” he said, calling it an “A-ha” moment. He also read “The China Study,” to get an understanding of what different proteins do to the body. “I’d say Rip lit something under me more than anything.

“I eat a lot of quinoa, couscous, tons of vegetables—kale, broccoli,” he said. “I still eat some cheese, Greek yogurt. I still drink beer and wine and all that stuff.” But Darragh dropped sodas, opting for sparkling water instead. He attributes the diet changes to the culture at the office, which he likened to a small family. “I think [the plant-based diet] has helped me with maintaining my weight without having to kill myself all the time training. There are times when I don’t do anything for a week or two because of work or the weather, but I notice my weight doesn’t change because I’m still eating the same things.”

The numbers show success all the way around. Whole Foods officials say that as of mid- July, approximately 15,000 Team Members had received a company-paid biometric screening in 2011, and more than 8,600 “Bronze” (22%) “Silver” (25%), “Gold” (27%) and “Platinum” (30%) Healthy Discount cards have been issued. To date in fiscal year 2011, U.S. Team Members have saved approximately $9 million using their Healthy Discount cards (on top of their 20% Team Member Discount savings).

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