The American Heart Association on Thursday recognized Cottage Health System as a Start! Fit-Friendly Company for promoting physical activity and health in the workplace.

The association also released a policy statement in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association that shows workplace wellness programs are proven to prevent the major modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Those include smoking, overweight, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

Nationally, the association recognized more than 1,200 companies in 2009 — an all-time high. More than 2 million employees participated in the programs.

Start! Fit-Friendly Companies reach Gold status by implementing various activities and programs to encourage physical activity, nutrition and culture enhancements such as on-site walking routes, healthy food choices in cafeterias and vending machines, annual employee health risk assessments and online tracking tools.

Companies that achieve Platinum recognition — the highest tier — take the program a step further by measuring the outcomes of their wellness efforts. Cottage Health System was recognized at the Platinum Award level.

“Cottage has made it a priority to provide its employees with tools and resources that promote healthy lifestyles. With the nation’s rise in obesity, diabetes and heart disease along with the escalating cost of health care, we realize that people can’t do it alone,” benefits and compensation manager Ron Lafrican said. “We are honored to be recognized by the American Heart Association for our efforts to help our employees live healthier lifestyles.”

In the Circulation policy paper, the association said companies can save up to $15 for every $1 spent on health and wellness within 12 to 18 months of implementing a workplace wellness program. Each employee who works to lower his or her risk status saves the company an estimated $53 per year; these savings remain each year that employee maintains the low-risk level.

The paper demonstrates that companies that promote workplace wellness are achieving higher levels of productivity and reducing turnover, and some are even reducing health-care costs.

The American Heart Association also champions work-site wellness programs in its health-care reform efforts, supporting an amendment that will be offered in a U.S. House Energy and Commerce bill to provide grants for qualified workplace wellness programs.

Click here to view the complete list of the 2009 Start! Fit-Friendly Companies or to apply for recognition. Applications are available to download. The submission deadline is Jan. 31, 2010.

— Eric Thompson is the senior director of communications and marketing for the American Heart Association.