Cape May County employees from different departments gathered in a 3,157-square-foot room off to the side of the county's Department of Health to talk about a new county initiative.

Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton stood at the podium in its center.

"Now, you'll have to understand, three months from now you're all going to be tested," Thornton said to the crowd, which included staff members of the county libraries, the Tourism Department, Public Works Department, the Prosecutor's Office and more. "You're each going to have to be able to do 25 push-ups, 50 sit-ups and run a mile in 9 minutes. I'm going to be the guy that's doing the timing."

The room exploded with laughter. Thornton was just joking. The county's employees won't have to undergo any sort of physical-health evaluation. But exercising, counting calories and reducing dependency on medications was, in fact, the focus of the afternoon gathering.

As part of Cape May County's newly established employee Wellness Program, which started in the fall, the county has been coming up with ways to improve its employees' health and lower the cost of health insurance.

One way is through its new employee fitness facility that opened Jan. 22, the real reason for the gathering.

The Wellness Center is located in the Cape May County Department of Health building in the Crest Haven Complex in Cape May Court House. The facility is full of exercise equipment such as treadmills, elliptical machines and free weights, and county employees can sign up for group classes, such as yoga and tai chi, all for free.

The entire Wellness Program is being organized by Cape May County Director of Operation Ed Grant, Wellness Division Coordinator Joann Barnard and an advisory board of 30 county employees from "every union, every building and every angle of government." It's funded by a grant from AmeriHealth Administrators, the county's health-insurance provider, with the oversight of Valerie Labaska, a manager of The Marsh & McLennan Insurance Agency. The plan is for the program to continue to be funded with the insurance savings incurred from having a healthier workforce.

"The county is investing in its employees," Grant said. "This isn't a county wellness center. This is an employee wellness center. If you're healthier, there's less medical claims, and if there's less claims, there's less money spent on insurance bills. I'd rather spent the money on this than on pills and doctors' appointments."

Standing in the Wellness Center with treadmills and elliptical machines to his right and a MyPlate poster to his left, Grant said the opening of the center is "just the beginning."

Along with the Wellness Program, the county will also have an employee food co-op, to start any day now, Grant said, and they've been holding lunch-and-learn healthy cooking demonstrations, which are held about once per month by the Rutgers Cooperative Extension's Family and Community Health Sciences Department Director Marilou Rochford. As for the food co-op, the county has purchased a food truck, painted Wellness Program logo on its two sides and filled it with fresh fruits and vegetables. The truck will be making regular rounds to county buildings as a convenience to its employees.

County Freeholder and Director of Health and Human Services Kristine Gabor said she's eager to "get in shape" with the rest of the county's elected officials and employees.

"I'm hoping that I'll see the other Freeholders on the treadmill next to me," Gabor said, with a teasing nod to Thornton.

Contact Elisa Lala:

609-463-6713

Cape May County Employee Wellness Center

The Wellness Center is connected to the Department of Health building in the Crest Haven Complex, Exit 11 off the Garden State Parkway. Use rear entrance.

County employees can gain direct access into the Wellness Center by swiping their county employee ID. Before starting, they need to meet with the wellness center director and fill out some paper work and go over a short orientation of the equipment.

To learn more about the County Wellness Program or to sign up for group fitness classes, visit cmcwellness.org.