12/29/2011 10:02 am ET | Updated Feb 28, 2012

Giving Back and Getting Balanced

If we do not change our habits by 2020, children today will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. It would be the first time that this has happened in 200 years.

This is a chilling thought. How are we supposed to feel as a society? More importantly - how are we supposed to feel as parents? It may seem a little melodramatic, but statistics like these can make you wonder why we even procreate?

Medical conditions caused by unhealthy living habits are largely to blame for the predicted drop in life expectancy. An astonishing 75% of health care costs in the United States are spent on chronic health conditions. That translates to 130 million Americans swallowing, injecting, inhaling, infusing, spraying or patting on prescription medication every month. Healthcare services that focus on preventative interventions and healthy living will play a key role in the effort to turn around this disconcerting prognosis and get us back on track.

On Friday I had the opportunity to speak with Kate Rubin, a woman who not only cares passionately about these issues, but who truly lives by her values. Kate grew up in a middle class home where helping people was a daily expectation. Today, she continues to live by that rule as Vice President of Social Responsibility for UnitedHealth Group and President of the United Health Foundation - a not for profit established by UHG in 1999, which works to expand quality Healthcare services and provide information related to healthy living.

Kate had a lot to say, not only about the future of our nation's health, but also about living a meaningful life and maintaining physical and emotional balance. Her words reminded me of a passage from poet Mary Oliver:

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime...and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don't think so.

- in "What I have learned so far", New and Selected Poems, Volume 2
Beacon Press, Boston, 1992

With one foot in business and the other in philanthropy, Kate understands the importance of slowing down, breathing deeply and keeping both feet planted firmly on the ground.

Tell me about some memories from your family dinner table growing up or your favorite meal as a child.

My first thought when you sent this question before the interview was, "Oh, my gosh. I don't have a specific memory." But then I realized that that's because we always sat down to dinner together. It was a rule. It was just my brother, my mom and dad, and me, but it was mandatory. You didn't even think about not being together. It's where we talked. It's where everything happened, and that is so different from the way it is for most families today. But, it's still so important.

Many families these days are struggling with the implications of not having or taking the time to prepare and eat dinner as a family. That's why we have so many initiatives connected to all facets of childhood obesity that reinforce the importance of not just physical activity, but healthy food and how to prepare it, including partnerships with groups like Sesame Workshop, Common Threads and our UnitedHealth HEROES program.

What does philanthropy mean to you?

For us at UnitedHealth Group, our mission of helping people live healthier lives is a focus in everything that we do. For some people, philanthropy is volunteering or writing a check, but here we get to put it all together. What we do goes far beyond traditional philanthropy to social responsibility - bringing all pieces together to really make a difference in the communities where we live and work. We give financially. We give to programs. We do a lot of volunteering. But social responsibility is also something that we do every day as a part of our business. I think a great example of this is found in our work with chronic disease prevention and care, which is our focus. That name - "chronic disease prevention and care" - is kind of a mouthful, but it refers to conditions like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Recently, we received a Citizen's Award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center. It was the Best Business Neighbor award for our Diabetes Prevention and Control Alliance, which is also a business product. For us, social responsibility is about the intersection between business, which we do well, and the key social needs that are out there, especially in the health space.

In laymen's terms, do you want to kind of give me an overview of what that program looks like?

The Diabetes Prevention and Control Alliance was started in 2010. The first part works with people who are pre-diabetic to prevent them from becoming diabetic, and the second helps people that have Type 2 diabetes control their diabetes. It started with some work with the CDC, and then grew to include partnerships with the YMCA of the U.S.A. and Walgreens. Pharmacy partners are added every day. At the Y, people who are pre-diabetic go through a program that makes them aware that if they just reduce their weight by 5%, they lower their likelihood of becoming diabetic by more than 50%.

For those who already have diabetes, we work with pharmacists to sign diabetics up for our program, which significantly reduces the likelihood that they are going to have complications. Given that diabetes can take 10 to 15 years off of a person's life, managing it well is a big deal, both in terms of learning how to live healthy and being able to afford to live healthy. Over 2 million people now are covered by this program, in 23 states and 46 different cities. It's just been phenomenally successful. Part of that success comes from being able to partner with all of those different entities. One of the measures of success is being able to not just beat your chest and say, "Look at us. Look what we did," but to say instead, "Look at how we made a major impact on this problem," and to recognize that there are lots of players. Nobody can do it alone - you have partner and collaborate.

Halleluiah. I love it. I love it.

Back to the philanthropy aspect - we also do a lot of volunteering at UnitedHealth Group. Seventy-nine percent of the people who work here have volunteered in the past year, and 57% of them have done it as a part of the business itself. Fifty-seven percent may not sound very high, but an average Fortune 100 Company has volunteer rates around 30%, and only 7% of those Fortune 100 Companies believe it's even possible to get to 50% staff volunteering. It's in everybody's blood here to make a difference. Nine out of ten of our executives volunteer as well. I'm very proud of all my wonderful colleagues and the great commitment they have to helping people live healthier lives.

I just got back from the PHA event and at the event David Lawrence, Jr. talked about how three-quarters of all American 17 to 24 year olds can't enter the military because they're ineligible - because they're obese or they're dealing with issues like substance abuse, criminal records or academic problems. He also linked our health to high school and college graduation rates. The US was once first in the world in terms of graduation rates, but today we're in position 20. In other words, we're not being globally competitive. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the link between our nation's health and these other issues.

You're right on target. Our major social responsibility focus is chronic disease prevention and care because those issues affect 130 million Americans, and account for 75% of the money we spend on healthcare. By 2012, that number is projected to rise to 141 million Americans. Many of those people suffer from multiple chronic diseases, and more and more, as you know, are children. The company did a study about a year ago called The United States of Diabetes, which reports that by 2020, if we don't make significant changes in our lifestyle, more than half of the people in the United States will be diabetic or pre-diabetic.

So this is major stuff and I think that it's one of the reasons why we, as well as other companies, are incorporating wellness programs. I know you've probably heard that we're looking at the first generation of Americans that may not live as long as - or as well as - their parents, and that's both economic- and health-related. Just being alive is so different from being alive and healthy.

The idea of collaboration is critical. We have been measuring our impact for the last three or four years, at first through dollars and hours and the kinds of things that are traditionally measured, but we are increasingly moving toward the question: what's the real impact?

And the great thing about collaborating and working with others is that, in the past, we would work with you [Common Threads] or we would work with American Heart Association or we would work with Project Hope, and it was a one-off kind of partnership. But now we're doing things that are collaborative in a more complex and long-term way. For instance, we did a Playground Build in Rhode Island with KaBOOM!, that was near a nursing home. The site became very intergenerational, with kids coming to the playground and people in the retirement home interacting with the kids. Collaboration is so much more powerful than any of the individual elements by themselves.

Are there any personal experiences that have shaped who you are and your own views of philanthropy?

I grew up in a small middle class town in Iowa. My mom was a teacher; my dad was a salesman. Helping others was just always a part of life growing up. You helped people who needed it - donating clothing or food, or cleaning up yards. And then when I started my career at IBM, where I worked for a number of years, being a part of the community was also an expectation. Giving back has become a part of who I am. In my job now, I love being able to have one foot in business - which I need because I've grown up in the business world - and one foot in social responsibility, helping others and driving change. That to me is a dream job.

What does healthy living mean to you?

It means balancing my energy: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Career-wise, I started on the business side out of college, working for IBM. Mid-career, I went back to grad school in human resource development, and then I did some leadership development and executive coaching. After that, I worked on my own doing leadership development executive coaching. As part of that, I worked on these great holistic leadership programs. We ultimately formulated a small program at the University of St. Thomas through their management center that was called Awakening Your Energy. It was about balancing physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy.

To live healthy you have to eat healthy and exercise, but you also have to make sure that you're living your values and that you're clear on what your values are. Early in my career, I was a bit of a workaholic. Even though I always wanted to help, help, help, that moment when I realized that if I'm not taking care of myself, I don't have anything to give back to others was a very big aha moment for me. Since that time, maybe 15 years ago, I have done a much better job taking care of myself. You really can't help others if you don't take care of yourself.

Everything you're saying is really resonating with me. When you become off balance, how do you find balance again? What are your rituals that keep you centered?

Well, let's start with the scenario in which I get off balance, because it happens a lot. It's the simplest thing, but my solution is breathing. I tell myself to stop, put my feet flat on the ground, and breathe, and I try to slow my mind down because it's going 100 miles an hour. If I really need it, I'll sit in a chair and put my arms on the armrests and make sure my feet are flat on the ground and just breathe because it slows the body down, it slows the thinking down, it kind of allows me to re-center.

When I'm staying on balance, for me, it's doing regular exercise. I walk and I like to dance. I've been taking classes to learn a type of dance called Nia, which involves nine different movements to music. It starts slow, gets faster, and then it gets slow again. In spirit it's a little like yoga and tai chi, but it's ballet, it's salsa dancing, it's modern dancing, it's just really fun.