Montana Schools Take a Hike to Better Health

By Ariel Parrella-Aureli

Jun. 14, 2017

The Montana University System was created by Neal Andrews and Cristin Stokes, who routinely release webinars, nutrition advice and fitness challenges online for the system’s employees.

Hiking the vast country of Montana is now easier and more social for some employees seeking to improve their wellness. The Montana University System, which oversees 14 college campuses in Montana in 11 locations, has developed a new wellness program to get employees excited about working out, eating healthy and gaining personal awareness about a healthy lifestyle.

MUS Wellness, as the program is called, is powered by Limeade and was developed by wellness team Neal Andrews and Cristin Stokes to better reach the 8,000 employees to communicate healthy nutritional diets, exercise challenges using Montana’s natural landscape and create a healthy work culture.

“We tried to incorporate that [Montana outdoor draw] to push people to be active and own where they live and take advantage of where they live,” said Andrews, the exercise and fitness specialist for MUS.

The program boasts that in its three years after getting off the ground, MUS users have 30 percent lower blood sugar, 14 percent higher energy, 17 percent better sleep habits and even report a 17 percent increase in finding meaning in work. 

Emphasis on mental and social health instead of only physical is an increasing trend in wellness programs like MUS. According to 246 benefits professionals interviewed in the 2017 Optum Health’s annual “Wellness in the Workplace” study, physical health programs are down 12 percent since 2015 but behavioral health programs are up 4 percent since last year. The study notes that financial health increased as well, showing that physical health is not the main focus in most wellness programs.

Andrews said the program is meant to be well rounded and accessible to all demographics and fit individual skills surrounding wellness. Integrating a healthy work culture has been a goal the team sees coming to fruition with the departments that frequently use MUS, Andrews added.

“We have seen it spread and become a culture changer,” he said. “It has permeated and become part of their culture; it’s a buzz to talk about what challenge is next.”

Out of the 8,000 employees, Andrews said about 55 percent are logged on to MUS and about 30 percent of them utilize the program. Employee Connie Hitchcock has been using the program since its launch three years ago. Hitchcock, in the business faculty at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, said the program has done wonders for her physical and mental health and has lost 20 pounds because of MUS and now eats vegetables — sometimes for breakfast, she said.

“They come up with these challenges that are new and interesting and make you think differently about your habits,” Hitchcock said.

One of the current challenge going on now is an apt example of this. Journaling has never been an interest of Hitchcock’s, but MUS’ journaling reflection challenge has opened up new perspectives for her and think differently about her mental well-being. Much of her wellness transformation is because of Andrews and Stokes.

“They have done an excellent job of being inspiring with the program but not being pushy,” she said.

She added that the wellness program has changed the workplace morale and strengthened co-worker relationships. There is constant conversation surrounding new challenges and nutritional diets, as well as team incentives and camaraderie.

“It is about being more intentional — whether it’s physical diet, diet, mental well-being — it’s making things happen instead of letting things happen to me.”

Ariel Parrella-Aureli is a Workforce intern. Comment below or email

Ariel Parrella-Aureli is a Workforce intern.

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