While the Tyson Foods Storm Lake turkey facility was being rebuilt after a devastating fire, employees had a chance to participate in an exercise program. The program was designed to help employees make sure they would be physically ready to return to work after many months away from the job. As part of the May cover story, Andy Hanacek sat down with Julia White and Evan Franzmeier, two people instrumental in the development and execution of the exercise program.

Andy Hanacek: It’s been 10 to 11 months since the fire, so think back to when this program began. How did you get involved? What were your initial thoughts, your initial reactions, to the program? What were the first steps that occurred in order to get the program going?

Julia White: Basically Kim Robertson contacted me, because we’ve done some work in the past. We’ve seen patients from Hillshire and have been on the jobsite at Hillshire. Also, we provided that stretching program for them that they use on the line. So at one point she called me and basically said, ‘Julia, we’re thinking about doing an exercise program or some kind of conditioning program in order to get people ready to go back to work, because obviously there is some concern.’ They’ve been off work for six or seven months. There was concern that people would be deconditioned at that time, and if they return to work and get back on the line, they have greater risk for injury. So basically, she said, ‘is there something you guys can put together?’ That was a pretty open-ended question. We said sure, great. That would be a fun project to do. It seemed like a really fabulous thing for the community. It seemed like a really wonderful thing for Hillshire to offer their employees, so we were really excited to partner on this project. At that point, I called my friend Evan and said, ‘Evan, do you think you could get involved in that?’ because we felt like if we were going to do a program of that magnitude, we would need to staff and expertise of the Fitness and Health Center that’s associated with the hospital.

Evan Franzmeier: We had a hundred different ideas. We met with some corporate guys from Hillshire and put together a program we thought would get the best bang for buck. Get as much as we can get in without overdoing it. I think it went well. I enjoyed it; I think the employees from Hillshire enjoyed it. It was 60 minutes, three times a week for six weeks. Initially it was a lot of prep work ahead of time, but once we actually got it rolling, it ran pretty smooth.

Hanacek: When you were devising the program, if you think about your standard stretches and exercises, did you focus on those or were you tasked with coming up with very pointed exercises around the meat industry plant experience?

Franzmeier: We actually went through… how many videos was it?

White: There were over 60 job videos, all the different job videos. We went through in detail, and I took notes on every single job that they had and tried to divide things into categories. Specifically, I looked at the higher risk motions, medium risk, low risk and try to divide them into trunk, upper extremity… Look at all the different motions and so we did try to break it down. The thing that we ran into was a lot of logistics to put 470 people through a program all at once. We quickly realized that… if I were going to devise a program for an individual person, because I do do work conditioning with clients, if I were going to do that, that would be incredibly job specific. However, when you are running 470 people through a program in a day, you’ve got some constraints there. We did try to develop the exercises with that in mind so that we make sure to target the things that we wanted to target. We had a little bit of cardio for overall fitness. Cardio wasn’t going to be a focus, because those jobs aren’t high cardio jobs.

Hanacek: They aren’t running sprints.

White: Right, but we tried to target cardio for the overall level of fitness, getting nutrition and oxygen to the tissues. Then, we looked at motion specific things. There were a lot of diagonal patterns, so we wanted to incorporate those diagonal reaching patterns. Some of the exercises incorporate that with bands or kettle bells or dumbbells. We had to use small equipment. Then, there were certain things we targeted like wrist extensors, wrist flexors, shoulder flexors. There were things we targeted where we did high reps, high endurance, so we were using light resistance but high endurance because that would simulate their job conditions.

Hanacek: How much of it was building strength back up in those muscles versus building endurance to do [the motions] repetitively? I don’t know if there is a tremendous difference in what you had to do in order to break that down.

White: You kind of have to do what you can, because it’s not the same as where you have somebody and you are conditioning them over several hours and building and building and building. But you can still get a reasonable amount of muscular endurance with three hours a week really focusing on higher reps and light resistance. You can still get some endurance out of that muscle at a basic level of fitness.

Hanacek: So talk about the math of the sheer number of people who were in the one hour exercise programs. How did you make that work?

Franzmeier: Practically 470 people… we started at eight in the morning, and we had about 70 people per session. So 70 people from eight to nine, take a 15 minute break between classes. The next class starts at 9:15, and we go another hour. We ran from eight in the morning to four or five o’clock at night.

Hanacek: Where did you do the sessions? In the parking lot?

Franzmeier: One of the local schools here that is no longer operating as a school had a gym that we could use, so we rented out that space. We stored our equipment there, and every week we met at the school.

Hanacek: What kind of feedback did you get from the employees during and after the program?

Franzmeier: Going in, there’s 18-year-olds to 60-year-olds, fit, unfit. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was very impressed. There was less than a handful of people that were kind of resisting it a little bit, but that was just the first couple of days. We tried to make it fun for the people. We really had great results, great energy. They actually enjoyed it, and they were kind of sad when it ended. They kind of wanted it to continue. Very good group of people.

White: We tried to structure it so they would come in and we would all do a warmup as a group. We always tried to have fun music. We tried to mix it up. We do everything from salsa to disco to classic rock. We try to mix it up to catch different populations. So we all did a warmup together, and then we would break out into usually four different stations so it was kind of circuit training format. You had at least one trainer in each circuit.

Franzmeier: So it wasn’t like all 70 people were doing one exercise. We split it up so we had a little bit more one-on-one interaction.

White: We tended to have 10 to 15 people in your group for your circuit, so that way you could watch everybody in your group. You could modify exercises if someone was struggling with an exercise. All of our trainers have backgrounds in some kind of human performance degree or exercise science. They are capable of modifying those exercises when they would see that someone was struggling.

Hanacek: So within that hour timeframe, they would do four or five exercises rotating between them?

White: Yes, you might do a group and be an upper extremity group. You might do shoulder; you might do forearm rotation. We would try to mix it up.

Franzmeier: Each station, you were there for about 10 minutes. A five to seven minute warmup in the beginning, and then we broke out into our groups. Then, you were there for about 10 minutes, and then we just rotated. One group might be upper extremity, and then another group might be cardio. Then, you get to the next one and it might be lower body stuff so they can stand for eight hours. One group was straight stretching.

Hanacek: Thank you guys so much. I appreciate it. I appreciate your time and insight into this. Congratulations on developing the program. I think it is a pretty cool program in a situation like that where it’s completely unexpected to have a fire and then wait to rebuild. Good job on that and thank you again for your time.