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Fitness challenge helps Penn State Health St. Joseph employees boost their physical and mental health

Following a customized program, workers built nutritional, physical and spiritual strength in a low-cost, low-pressure


It had been almost a year since his wife died unexpectedly, and Rick Deerfield was struggling emotionally and physically. His life was increasingly sedentary, and weight

he’d lost before was piling up again, most of it around his waist.

Deerfield, a lab technician at Penn State Health St. Joseph, was at a breaking point, wondering how he could make a lifestyle change that would help him feel like he was really living again.

The day after he vowed to take a first step, his employer set him on the right path by introducing a corporate wellness program.

In early April, Deerfield and 72 other employees from Penn State’s local hospital, health and education facilities completed an eight-week fitness challenge through Alliance Fitness Center in Spring Township. Following a customized program, workers built nutritional, physical and spiritual strength in a low-cost, low-pressure environment.

“My biggest goal was to be able to reach all the employees and provide them with information and resources to help them make good choices,” said Monica Rush, director of rehabilitation services. “We got physicians, nurses, radiology, lab techs, therapists, athletic trainers, housekeeping and maintenance men — everybody.” Late last year, Rush was appointed to champion a pro-wellness initiative for Penn State, complete with a $5,000 grant. She’d been working with Alliance owner Sarah Small on a rehab project when Small mentioned her center’s corporate programs centered around InBody assessments.

An InBody machine measures users’ body composition (muscle, fat and water weight), giving them data they can use to set specific, achievable goals. The program, developed by Small and trainer Collin McGee, didn’t stop at numbers. Each week, participants got new information on healthy eating; wellness topics such as joint health, sleep and stress management; and fitness strategies including building strength and improving endurance.

“We build on a week-by-week, step-by-step process,” McGee said. “Using the InBody, we can show the muscle increases and talk about how that improves locomotion and just our ability to live life well.”

Access to the gym was included in the $50 participation fee, but group members also were encouraged to link up with a private Facebook group. There, they could share their struggles and successes, solicit nutrition advice from worksite wellness expert Pamela Terlizzi and get more insights into exercise plans.

Participants who weren’t necessarily pursuing a fat loss goal stayed motivated with minichallenges, in which they could log a photo of themselves trying a new class or sneaking in exercise outside of the gym.

“It’s a fun way to collect the information,” McGee said.

Deerfield of Bern Township said he hadn’t been in a gym in over 40 years. But he saw the program — and hiring Alliance personal trainer Faith Elliott — as an investment in himself. He trimmed his food portions significantly, sometimes by half, and added salads to most meals. And he started get up extra early so that he could squeeze in three 5 a.m. workouts at Alliance each week.

Being part of the group gave him a new sense of belonging after losing his wife of 17 years.

“She was always more active than me, and then she found out she had diabetes, so she started exercising,” Deerfield said. “At the orientation, I thought, ‘I have no business being in this gym.’ But I feel very comfortable there now.”

Both his mood and physique improved during the challenge, and he worked off some of the stubborn, health-threatening abdominal fat that he’d put on over the last year. Three times during the challenge, Deerfield his fellow participants stepped onto the InBody machine to “weigh” in. In a matter of minutes, the machine can calculate lean body mass in the trunk and each limb, an easy way to identify imbalances and weaknesses that could lead to injury.

For the challenge, Alliance staff tracked the percent of change in overall fat and lean mass. Rush came out the winner with a 14% change in fat loss and muscle gain. Deerfield was a close second with a 13.8% change.

“It was a great way for me to test-drive what I was selling,” said Rush, a mother of two whose children both left home recently. “I’ve always been a healthy person and been active, but I didn’t devote so much time to it. I needed to be challenged and pushed a little more.”

Overall, 30 participants completed all three check-ins and posted 109.4 pounds lost, 97.6 pounds of that in fat.

Several participants have joined a gym since the program ended, and Penn State Health St. Joseph also is continuing its wellness work. A new internal website is helping small groups meet up for golf and other physical activities. Rush said some grant money remains, and she is working with Penn State Berks to develop a walking path for employees and the community.

McGee said continued activity and incremental healthy gains are his long-term goal for clients.

“Numbers and images are only part of the picture,” he said. “Weight loss might be the superficial goal. But we’re all looking for a certain happiness, and my goal was to have them find that first and stay attached to that.”


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