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Fit for Business: Colorado Banking on Wellness Tourism for 'Extreme Makeover'

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As a child, he turned to food for comfort. As a 29-year-old high school football coach, he carried a dark secret that even his 382-pound frame struggled to hide.

Adored by his players and friends, Bruce Pitcher is determined to confront his alleged mental and sexual abuse at the hands of his now imprisoned father and the extreme weight gain that ensued to placate his victimization. He decides to travel from his home in Salt Lake City, Utah, to the University of Colorado, where he begins his journey to healing and newfound trust.

Obesity challenges like this one featured in an episode of Extreme Weight Loss are being played out at Anschutz Medical Campus, where Colorado health and wellness advocates, weighed down by the attention generated from the legalization of marijuana, are trying to whip up a healthy state of mind again.

Colorado leaders believe weight loss and related health and wellness programs can help make the Centennial State an attractive medical tourism destination and fit for business as well. After all, the ski industry is credited with luring some $3 billion into the Rocky Mountain economy and more can be had by transforming Colorado into a lean state.

Globally, it's a powerful brand, Ken Lund, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, said on KUNC radio. People want to be part of a healthy state, a healthy environment.

Job One

In broader terms, Colorado's $40 billion tourism industry could extend to medical tourism, in which niche markets, such as traditional and alternative medicines, natural food products, health information technology, research, fitness and outdoor recreation, could be used to attract international health and wellness seekers.

Just thinking about wellness tourism might provoke even a savvy entrepreneur to sweat. The near half-trillion dollar market is expected to grow almost 10 percent annually in the next five years, according to SRI International and the Global Spa & Wellness Summit.

Since construction was completed two years ago, the $34 million Health and Wellness Center on the Anschutz Campus has created high-tech space for research, programs and additional jobs.

We're like an R&D Center for wellness, said John Peters, a strategist at the Anschutz Center in Aurora, Colo. This is where we do research, and we do the development and then we work with a multitude of partners as the distribution center.

Renée-Marie Stephano, President of the Medical Tourism Association, said wellness tourism is directly responsible for millions of jobs and the trillions of dollars those positions pump into national and local economies.

When people begin to contemplate a vacation, they are beginning to incorporate healthy choices they practice at home into their travel regimens, she said. Unhealthy habits once considered pleasing excessive eating and drinking, oversleeping — are becoming less and less desirable — even sometimes on vacation.

Stephano said this trend of thought can often be traced to programs at work that encourage wellness and put employees in charge of their own health.

Employers are recognizing that a healthy and fit employee is good for business, she said. Health-conscious practices, once limited to the home, are now finding their way into work routines. It's not unusual for an employer to sponsor a gym membership, offer an exercise class on site, or coordinate health screenings to identify high cholesterol or blood sugar levels and then entice employees to take action.

Wellness at Work

The jury is still out as to whether any of these wellness programs, encouraged under the Affordable Care Act, substantially improves employee health or lowers costs for business owners or insurers.

So far, workers have mixed reviews as well. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last week found that an overwhelming majority of employees approve of corporate wellness programs when they offer perks, but disapprove of plans that include punitive measures, such as higher healthcare insurance premiums, for those workers who chose not to participate.

However, Stephano said existing research already suggests that wellness activities can energize meaningful change in the workplace, increase productivity and, most importantly, improve health. She invited developers, managers, policy makers and others already vested in or thinking about wellness to the 7th World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress, Sept. 20-24, 2014, in Washington, D.C., where they can take part in sessions devoted specifically to this emerging segment of health, fitness and travel.

Moving Mountains

As more jump on the wellness bandwagon, projects that point to physical fitness services are likely to comply accordingly. In Estes Park, home to a popular summer resort in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Mayor Bill Pinkham and Stanley Hotel Owner and Grand Heritage Hotel Group CEO John Cullen recently broke ground on a new 15,000 square-foot health and wellness facility that will cater to leaner living and more jobs as many as 70 full-time positions when the initiative is up and running.

Cullen said the University of Colorado's Health and Wellness Center will provide consulting and programs for the Estes Park project, which will feature a 50-room boutique hotel, a public-private partnership between Grand Heritage Hotel Group and Estes Park Medical Center.

They have 150 people just in research on this topic, he said. It gives us a great opportunity to be their little brother and, quite frankly, put medical tourism on the map in the state of Colorado.

Meanwhile, in an era of declining insurance and federal reimbursements, Estes Park Medical Center gets a cash stream for business. Similar projects designed to make wellness work in Colorado are scheduled for Colorado Springs, Telluride and Denver.

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