Coalition getting residents moving into healthier lifestyles

January 10, 2010

In 2009, nearly 2,000 area residents swam, jumped, stretched and jogged their way to better health.

They did it through classes and programs offered by the Martinsville Henry County Coalition for Health and Wellness.

“We still have a long way to go, but we’re seeing the community become more active and more healthy,” said Tara Martin, communications director for the coalition.

The coalition offers free classes in water, step, low-impact and other forms of aerobics, as well as yoga and other programs. Classes are offered five days a week in seven locations throughout Henry County and Martinsville, according to Deirdre Moyer, activities director with the coalition.

Last year, 1,900 people attended at least one class, she said. About 1,500 of them attended more than half of the classes in the programs for which they enrolled, she said.

The coalition is pleased with those numbers, especially people who return class after class, Martin said.

“We want them to jump on the bandwagon and keep coming. Otherwise, everything they’ve worked for dissolves,” she said.

The classes are designed for 40 students and usually have 30 to 35, Moyer said. But sometimes it is more, she said, pointing to the 54 people who attended a recent Tuesday night step aerobics class.

The aerobics classes began as mother-daughter classes, then fathers were added, and now children are welcome at all classes.

Some classes, such as “Drums Alive,” often attract children. Participants beat drumsticks on exercise balls for a cardio workout, Moyer said.

The aerobics classes have been held since the coalition was created five years ago.

“They looked at what the community needed” and found a high percentage of residents with diabetes, Martin said. “They started primarily with the education piece” and realized that diabetics needed activities as well. “Now, aerobics has taken off” along with wellness classes, she said.

The wellness classes cover diabetes education and healthy lifestyles, according to Stephanie Milroy, community health educator for the coalition.

About 1,100 people have regularly attended more than half of the classes, Milroy said. They include blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol screenings at the beginning and end of the sessions, and cover such topics as meal planning, how to change eating behaviors and counting carbohydrates, she said.

In most cases, doctors refer patients to the coalition, Milroy said. After the classes end, the coalition staff checks with participants every six months for a year to ensure the changes they made were long term, she said.

Some people call and ask to attend the classes, Milroy said. They may take the classes to make friends, avoid loneliness or lose weight, she said.

The classes are making a difference, Milroy said. A July report showed the participants consistently surpassed targets set by the Virginia Diabetes Council, she said.

For instance, the council has a goal of having 62 percent of program participants monitor their blood sugar daily, and Milroy said last year 80 percent of the coalition’s class participants did daily monitoring. She added that the coalition gets physician reports to verify its figures.

The classes have been shortened from six to four weeks, Milroy said, with a condensed curriculum. They also are being expanded into Patrick County in a partnership with Pioneer Hospital in Stuart, she said.

In addition, the classes now are being offered in work places and other sites.

“Now we go where the people are,” Milroy said. That makes people feel comfortable in a familiar setting, she said.

The 90-minute classes are taught by a variety of instructors, including community members, nurses, extension agents and others.

All the coalition programs, whether they are exercise or wellness classes, are free. Its only charges are associated with the Bassett Family Practice, and those are on a sliding scale based on income.

“The health results are astronomical,” Martin said.

She told of a woman who took a water aerobics class when it was held outside and followed it when it was moved inside in the winter. She lost weight and reduced the medications she was taking.

“A year later, she looks like a totally different person,” Martin said, adding that the woman still attends the classes every week. “It is not necessarily the weight loss; there is a glow about her.”

The coalition spreads information about its classes through brochures placed throughout the community, word of mouth and holding fitness programs in the schools that also encourage parents to take part.

It also has a mobile health van, which the staff uses to do screenings throughout the community and refer people to the classes.

“We hope to get to the point where the community is able to self-sustain, where people know what tools are in the community,” such as trails, rivers and parks, that are available for people to maintain healthy lifestyles, Martin said. “Those are things not everybody has.”

“We want the community to be healthy,” she added.


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