As a young girl, Brenda Sillas was frustrated to see how overweight people were judged and stereotyped based on their body image.
Such perceptions, she said, were not only unhealthy and often insultingly incorrect but did nothing to meet people where they were at or to push them to be their best selves. She’s been working to change attitudes ever since. Today as a regional corporate health and wellness consultant for one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health plans, Sillas (Health Sciences, ’06) has made it her life’s work to reverse the obesity trend and create a comprehensive culture of wellness—starting with herself.
“You know that thing about the mind-body connection? Well turns out, it’s true. Very true,” said Sillas. “When I take care of myself and focus on nutrition, exercise and rest, I perform better in all areas of life and I feel amazing.”
A first-generation Mexican American, Sillas grew up and attended schools in the San Diego area. Upon learning that as an underrepresented minority, she was statistically unlikely to graduate high school, she set a goal to not only earn her diploma but to excel in math. She turned around her 1.9 GPA, joined the cross country team, began taking care of herself and her health, and eventually graduated with honors—including top scores in pre-calculus. She was in the best physical shape of her life.
In junior college, things got off track. Despite achieving and surpassing her goals, her stress levels were high, her finances were “a mess,” she found herself in a toxic relationship, and she gained 40 pounds. As she experienced firsthand toxic stress’ effects on hormone levels in the body, she found another piece to her own life’s puzzle.
“I had lost my sense of purpose,” she said. “That’s when I realized that if I wanted to end obesity, in addition to focusing on exercise and nutrition, I’d need to help people have a vision and a goal and to realize that taking care of yourself is a holistic thing—it encompasses all areas of your life.”
Transferring to Chico State further shifted the paradigm. She left the toxic baggage behind, began eating well and exercising regularly again, and regained her energy and clarity of mind. She was drawn to the University’s health sciences program—one she hadn’t seen at other schools and which encompassed a well-rounded approach, with lessons in community health, epidemiology, research studies, grant writing, nutrition, and even multicultural studies.
“It’s the bigger picture of the obesity epidemic,” she said.
That foundation, along with a master’s degree she earned from the University of Phoenix, helped her land the job she holds today: Sillas works directly with executives at organizations in the San Diego region who contract with health plans for their employee insurance benefits to implement health and wellness strategies on the ground level.
To identify where she’s most needed, Sillas mines through aggregate data looking for trends in exercise habits, body mass index (BMI), and other prevention and lifestyle risks. When patterns like high blood pressure or diabetes crop up, she meets with the organization’s leaders to highlight the findings, helps the employer conduct employee health surveys, coordinates the delivery of workshops on healthy living, and promotes resources from the health plan, the community, and nationally accredited experts such as the Center for Disease Control, National Business Group on Health, and Gallup.
In overseeing even more projects, such as adding a walking track to a company’s campus, her position as a corporate wellness consultant is revolutionary: It focuses on preventing common health problems, not just treating them.
“It’s a business strategy,” Sillas said simply. “Not only are healthy people more productive, they’re more focused. People want to be well. They want drive, purpose, to be successful, they want their finances in order—all of it. We partner with employer groups to strategically mitigate risk, increase productivity, and manage costs.”
BMI, which calculates a person’s body fat based on height and weight, is usually one of the highest cost drivers for employers, Sillas explained. With research showing that an overweight or obese employee costs an employer an average of $2,300 more per year in direct and indirect medical expenses than an employee at a healthier weight, employers have real incentive to take prevention seriously.
“People are really grateful, they want these resources,” she said. “But it has to be about more than leadership imposing changes. We are working to change the culture, the work environment.”
Sillas is proud of her corporate successes. But the real reward, she said, is in knowing she is making a difference in individual lives, empowering people to be the best and healthiest version of themselves.
“I’ve always been captivated with obesity—I want to put an end to it,” she said. “I decided to get into corporate wellness because I knew that they employ thousands of people, and that would help create social change at the organizational level. It makes me feel like I’m actually making a difference.”
Retired Chico State health sciences professor Mary Portis, who taught classes on public health program planning and implementation for 25 years, is not surprised her bright and driven former student is passionately engaging wide audiences today.
“She took an assignment and ran with it,” she said. “She had so many ideas—she was her own life-force.”
With a heavy emphasis on service learning, Portis’ courses required students to plan, practice, and teach health education programs in local elementary schools and at community events, including one on blood pressure. That first taste of community health is what captured Sillas, as it does for so many students.
“Why would you read a textbook when you could really do it?” Portis said. “The value in teaching someone something brand-new about their health that can change their life for the better … it was very exciting.”
Sillas still credits many of the tools and much of the inspiration for her work today directly to her time at Chico State.
“I have a huge binder of work I did in my major with real examples of how to create a marketing campaign around wellness, with a sample poster, press release and everything you’d need in the real world,” she said. “I actually reference those pieces in the job I do now, and it comes really easily to me now as a result.”
In another assignment, Sillas was required to design a solution for obesity where she would need to create a vision, mission, and summary for a health and wellness consulting company. As a student, she created a fictional company called Be Fit, Be Healthy, Be Happy. Fast-forward a decade, and she would bestow a similar motto on the real-life online health coaching platform she created to guide and coach others: “Happy, Healthy, Balanced.”
“Even though it was just an assignment, I manifested it and made it my reality,” she said. “Everything I do to help others live their best life I learned in my bachelor’s degree.”