By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury
Doctors are not only adding exercise to their prescription pad but they’re also providing a “pharmacy” where patients can receive the tools to begin a fitness routine.
Dr. Gregory Degnan is the medical director of acac Fitness & Wellness Center, a Virginia-based club. The club has locations in West Chester and Exton. Degnan said when physicians discuss fitness as treatment for patients, they are talking to someone that doesn’t exercise and doesn’t necessarily know how to begin. He said doctors shouldn’t tell a patient they need to exercise more then send them on their way without giving them any tools to do so.
“Without a pharmacy to fill that prescription, without somebody to give you the basic skill set to show you how to succeed safely at exercise then the chances of you doing anything with it and staying with it are slim to none,” Degnan said.
He said several studies have shown that conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and heart diseases can be treated in an individual by adding more activity.
“The progression of all those diseases are related to sedentary lifestyles and exercise is a proven benefit basically as an intervention or medication for all those,” Degnan said.
About 80 percent of adults in the U.S. don’t meet the national recommendations for physical activity, according to the State of Obesity report at stateofobesity.org/physical-inactivity. The annual report is released through a project of the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The report also stated that about half of American adults don’t exercise enough to achieve health benefits.
Because of these alarming statistics; doctors, fitness providers and organizations are working together to help people become more physically active and make the behavior a lifestyle change. “Exercise is Medicine” is an initiative of the American College of Sports Medicine. It encourages physicians and health providers to make exercise a part of the treatment plan for patients, stated the sports medicine website www.acsm.org/about-acsm/initiatives/eim
It’s now common for health insurance companies to provide their members with incentives for engaging in healthy behaviors. For example, Independence Blue Cross insurance has a Healthy Lifestyles Solutions reimbursement program. Members can get money back for fitness center fees and weight management programs. United Healthcare also has a fitness reimbursement program for members. Members can earn credit by exercising at a contracted fitness center. Aetna health insurance members can earn money back when they get a personal trainer, purchase fitness equipment and use nutrition counseling services.
Jessica Garnett is the registered dietitian of a program called “Healthy Choices, Healthy Families.” The family-focused fitness program is through Creative Health Services of Pottstown. It has nutrition and exercise components. Garnett said about 75 percent of the families find out about the healthy program through a doctor. She said local physicians in the area have “Healthy Choices, Healthy Families” brochures, flyers and posters displayed in their office. Doctors will make a direct recommendation to families if a child is overweight or obese.
“Obesity, especially childhood obesity has been such a growing problem in the last few years,” Garnett said. “There’s been a big push in primary care for prevention and treatment.”
She said some providers will send patients to the program when they want to try treating a condition such as high cholesterol with lifestyle changes before starting medication. Garnett said providers are beginning to see increasing healthy behaviors as the solution instead of only using medication.
“We’ve seen a lot of kids and adults’ abnormal values go back into normal limits,” she said adding that this is true in cases where patients had high blood sugar, high cholesterol and other unhealthy measurements.
Dr. Degnan said the average obese diabetic has tried to get healthier on their own but didn’t succeed. He said these people were motivated to exercise but didn’t know how to begin or how to exercise safely without getting hurt.
“Every time they fail, the chance of success or them even trying again diminishes,” he said adding that this is why it’s important to provide patients with resources that will help them change their unhealthy behaviors.
Degnan said acac offers something called P.R.E.P. which stands for “Physician Referred Exercise Program.” The patients of the program receive help from hands-on fitness experts.
“Our goal in 60 days is to put our hands on you and to convince you that this lifestyle change is something that you can succeed at and something that you can embrace,” he said.
The 60-day program introduces patients to exercise and gives them guided support, said P.R.E.P. physician liaison Katy Palotas. Participants start the program by seeing an acac registered nurse and going over their medical history. They then meet with medical professionals twice a week, have access to fitness facilities and classes, and are able to visit a registered dietitian.
“We really just want to introduce and jump start an exercise program (for patients). We realize that exercise can be daunting and scary … We want to make sure people are working at their appropriate stage,” Palotas said.
She said physicians are able to recommend any patient that would benefit from exercise to join the program. She said there are patients that have diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and arthritis. There are even programs for pre-and-post-natal patients. Participants of P.R.E.P. can try a variety of activities so they can find something that’s best suited for them. Palotas said fitness is a critical component of healthcare.
“I think essentially exercise is medicine,” she said.
Degnan said after the 60 days, not all the participants will continue as members of acac but the goal is that they continue the healthy behaviors they learned somewhere. He said getting people to adopt healthy choices for a lifetime is very important especially when it comes to reducing healthcare costs in the country.
According to the State of Obesity report, about $117 billion in healthcare costs are because of people being physically inactive.
“Adults who are inactive pay $1,437 more per year in healthcare costs than physically active adults,” the report stated.
“These are the people who are the highest users of our healthcare system and our healthcare dollars. Of the 40,000 that we have touched (at acac), somewhere between 40 to 60 percent have continued to exercise,” Degnan said adding that this shows the program is successfully changing behavior.