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MFA News: Industry News

Medical Fitness Center: A foundational service offering of healthcare systems

Tuesday, August 14, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: LaNiece Holland
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Learning Objective

This article is intended to demonstrate how a medical fitness center can:

·       Be an integral component of a health system’s continuum of care.

·       Expand outcome-based preventive and rehabilitative services.

·       Serve as an important strategy for success in the era of healthcare reform.



Article summary

With overwhelming evidence in support of physical activity’s role in the prevention and care of chronic diseases, medical fitness centers can be a beneficial and integral part of a hospital or health system’s continuum of care. This article discusses how the framework of services the centers offer can be a prominent and compulsory component of care in the health system  model, especially in light of healthcare reform and a public health crisis caused by physical inactivity.




When Bob Taylor listened to his doctor describe the complications that could accompany his worsening diabetes, it became a "wake-up call” to take action.


"I had reached a point in 2009 where all the insulin I was taking was no longer enough to keep my blood sugar levels in check,” says the 68 year-old Taylor, who lives on Stockbridge, Michigan.  "I realized I had to do something, or my health was going to continue to deteriorate.” Taylor’s internal medicine physician, Steven Yarows, M.D., recommended he participate in a diabetes education class at Chelsea Community Hospital in Chelsea, Michigan and join a diabetes exercise program offered by the hospital’s medical fitness center, The Chelsea Wellness Center. Through the class, Taylor discovered more about diabetes and how to better manage the disease, and at the fitness center he learned how to exercise in ways that would help to bring his condition under control.


Today, after two years of strict adherence to his doctors’ orders, including the exercise regime, Taylor has made significant progress, highlighted in Table 1.  "My diabetes numbers have come down so far my doctor was able to take me off insulin completely. I lost over 23 pounds during the 12-week program, and more than 50 pounds overall,” says Taylor. "I’m feeling much better and have been able to get back to a more active life again.”








Percent Improvement





Body Fat








Strength Assessment




Submaximal Chest Press (5RM)




Submaximal Leg Press (5RM)








Functional Fitness Assessment1




Upper Body Flexibility




Lower Body Flexibility




30 Second Chair Stand




Arm Curls




6-minute Walk




Table 1.Percent improvement in anthropometric and performance outcomes due to participation in a 12-week diabetes fitness program at the Chelsea Wellness Center.


Dr. Yarows, who frequently refers patients to the Chelsea Wellness Center, says, "Evidence-based research has documented the benefits of exercise for individuals with diabetes, so it made sense to encourage Mr. Taylor to participate in the program.  As his personal physician, I’m pleased that the center staff has knowledge and training in fitness for diabetics, and I like the fact that fitness specialists worked with him to develop an exercise prescription designed to meet his unique needs.  Mr. Taylor’s results


have been outstanding.” What’s also important is that when patients like Taylor complete the program, they often join the center and continue working out on a regular basis as members. "It becomes part of a new, healthier lifestyle,” Dr. Yarows says.


Taylor is a living example of the value medically-based fitness centers can bring to the communities served and how a health system’s continuum of care can be complemented and enhanced.


A nation in need of medically-based fitness

A Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) report2 indicates that more than 108 million adults are either obese or overweight. This translates to roughly three out of five people with excess weight. Figure 1 depicts the overwhelming statistics regarding the dramatic increase in obesity over the past 20 years3. The CDC report_ENREF_2 on the percentage of adults who engaged in all leisure-time and vigorous leisure-time physical activities demonstrates why  some researchers describe physical inactivity as one of the most profound public health concerns of this century4.



Figure 1. Obesity trends among U.S. adults as reported by the CDC. The data was collected in the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) and represent self-reports of height and weight.


The benefits of physical activity and the risks for physical inactivity are well documented. The list below from the Department of Health and Human Services5  illustrates this public health concern:

·         Less active, less fit individuals have a 30% to 50%  greater risk of developing high blood pressure.

·         Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States.  Physically inactive people are twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease as regularly active people.

·         Physical inactivity has been shown to increase the risk of certain cancers.

·         A lack of physical activity has been found to contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression.



An opportunity for healthcare providers to make more of a difference

Medical fitness centers provide health systems with an opportunity to implement a paradigm shift from the historical  emphasis on  treating the acute and chronically ill to becoming a resource for prevention, physical activity and health improvement in the communities served.


Palos Community Hospital in Palos Heights, Illinois opened its medical fitness center 10 years ago with exactly that goal in mind, according to Tim Brosnan, vice president for planning and community relations.  "Our facility was developed as part of the hospital’s mission-based strategy to become a leader in wellness. We have a responsibility to look beyond the care that’s provided inside the walls of the hospital and focus on keeping people healthy. The fitness center helps us fulfill that obligation.”


Members undergo an evaluation performed by fitness specialists that can include:

·        Health risk assessment

·        Vital signs

·        Body composition analysis

·        Cholesterol and lipid blood test

·        Cardio-respiratory endurance evaluation

·        Strength and endurance assessment

·        Flexibility screening


Additionally, each member is provided an overall center orientation and taught how to properly use equipment and perform exercises. Members are afforded a customer service model that offers encouragement and support in an environment that can be daunting.

Based on evaluation results, the fitness specialists develop personalized exercise plans.  The plans incorporate exercise prescription and goal development and may include wellness coaching, behavior modification, nutritional counseling and integrative services such as massage therapy.  The results also serve as a baseline for subsequent evaluations that enable members to track progress and modify plans over time in collaboration with fitness specialists.


"Our centers take a medically-based approach to fitness and are intended to complement a health system’s continuum of care,” says Tom Rhind, president of Power Wellness, an industry leader in developing and operating medical fitness centers. "The fitness specialists have degrees and certifications in such fields as exercise physiology, health and exercise science and personal training.”


Medical fitness centers also offer exercise programs for people with health issues such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and those with orthopedic problems."[b1]   Fitness team members with specialized training work with participants to develop exercise routines tailored  to meet their specific health and fitness needs,” says Sheldon Solomon, M.D., rheumatologist and medical director for the William G. Rohrer Center for Health Fitness in Voorhees, New Jersey. "The programs function as an extension of a health system and have been successful in improving participants’ medical outcomes.”


In addition, medical fitness centers have a multidisciplinary medical advisory committee that typically includes physicians, physical therapists, registered dieticians, registered nurses and other health care professionals. The committee provides review and oversight of the services offered. "This is a major distinguishing factor of medical fitness centers,” says Dr. Solomon.  "The advisory committees provide an excellent forum for clinicians from a variety of disciplines to come together to focus on ways to improve the fitness experience for members, and brainstorm ideas for innovative new programming.”


Medical fitness centers provide a safe and comfortable environment for exercise, which is important for those who feel intimidated by commercial gyms and fitness facilities. "When I talk to my patients about exercise they often tell me they have never been a member of a fitness center and feel self-conscious about working out in a facility where they don’t know how to use the equipment and where many members are in great shape,” says Eric Skye, M.D., a family practice physician on staff at the University of Michigan Health System.  "They need a place where they can get proper instruction and feel at ease in exercising with people who are just like them.  Medical fitness centers provide that option,” Dr. Skye says. 


Helping health systems prepare for the future

It’s vital for health systems to be prepared for the coming fundamental changes in the nation’s healthcare system under health care reform – changes that will require providers to assume a greater responsibility for the health of their communities. "With the advent of accountable care organizations and other government and insurer initiatives, there will be an increased emphasis on offering services that foster prevention, health maintenance and disease management,” says Rhind. "Medical fitness centers can play a key role in positioning health systems for success in this environment.”


That sentiment is shared by Kathleen Griffiths, CEO of Chelsea Community Hospital who says "a big part of our job in the future will be helping people stay well, keeping them out of the hospital, and preventing unnecessary readmissions.  One of the most effective ways to do that is by having a wellness center where patients and community members can maximize their health.”


Generating revenue and increasing patient referrals

In an age when healthcare providers are facing heightened financial pressures, medical fitness centers can boost health systems’ bottom lines through income from memberships and ancillary services and increased patient referrals for other health system services. "Our center has generated a halo effect for our hospital in the community,” says Tom Wright, president of Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois. "People who join the center and have positive experiences tend to develop a strong affinity for the Delnor brand and choose our hospital when medical services are needed.”


The same principle holds true when it comes to health systems driving memberships to medical fitness centers. "Our decision to house hospital outpatient services such as physical therapy in the Chelsea Wellness Center has worked out extremely well for us,” notes Griffiths. "Not only does the center provide a great setting and facilities for these programs, it also enables us to transition many patients to members after the completion of therapy.”


Strengthening relationships with physicians

Medical fitness centers are supported by physicians who recognize the impact the facilities can make in improving the health of the community. The centers provide an additional resource for primary care physicians whose patients can benefit from increased physical activity.  "I encourage sedentary patients and those who are overweight to consider joining a medical fitness center, where the staff may have a higher level of education and training, and where I know they’ll be in a safe and medically integrated environment,” says Dr. Skye.


Physician specialists appreciate the medical exercise programs that are offered.  "These programs can be integrated into a comprehensive care plan that orthopedists, cardiologists, oncologists and other specialists prescribe for their patients,” notes Dr.  Solomon.  "It’s one more way health systems can strengthen their relationships and collaboration with physicians on staff.”


Medical fitness centers can also serve as an effective tool in recruiting and retaining fitness-minded doctors. "I like the convenience of being able to go to the fitness center on the hospital campus where I practice,” says Dr. Yarows. "It’s a great stress reliever for me and I have the flexibility of fitting in my workouts before or after work, or even during my lunch hour.  It’s especially beneficial for those times when I get paged and have to immediately go back to the office or  to the hospital to see a patient.”


Contributing to a healthier workforce

Medical fitness centers can be a valuable addition to a health system’s employee wellness strategy, demonstrating the organization’s commitment to the well-being of its workforce, and providing a high-quality facility for staff to exercise and participate in health programs.


Delnor Hospital offers employees half price on the cost of membership at its Health and Wellness Center, and rebates 100% of dues back to staff who exercise at the center a minimum of twice-a-week. "Offering this benefit is an excellent way for the hospital to ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to our commitment to being an employer of choice.  It emphasizes the importance we place on prevention and wellness for those who work here,” commented Wright, who regularly exercises at the center himself. "We actually incorporated this concept into our benefits package, and the response among our staff has been highly positive.”


In addition to being the "right thing to do” for employees, health systems have an opportunity to  improve worker productivity, lower absenteeism, enhance employee satisfaction and control their medical costs by incentivizing employees through subsidized membership based on participation.


Enhancing Public Perception and Brand Preference

A medical fitness center can become a new "front door” for a health system – enhancing public perception of the organization as an innovative leader in wellness, and building brand preference. Tim McKevett, senior vice president for Beloit Health System in Beloit, Wisconsin, which operates the North Pointe Wellness Center in Roscoe, Illinois, says: "When someone walks into our center they immediately notice it has a progressive, non-institutional design that’s very different from traditional medical facilities.  As a result, we’re no longer viewed as being ‘just a hospital.’  Community members now think of us as a comprehensive health system that’s dedicated to keeping them healthy in addition to caring for them when they’re sick or injured.”



The shift in perception is evident in Beloit Health System’s latest consumer market research. Prior to opening the North Pointe campus in 2007, McKevett says the system was preferred by only 26% of consumers surveyed in that portion of its service area.  In a follow-up study performed in 2010 that percentage increased to 48%. "There’s no question the decision to add a medical fitness center has greatly enhanced our brand in that market,” states McKevett.



As increasingly sedentary lifestyles put the health of Americans of all ages at risk, medical fitness centers provide health systems with an important opportunity to address this trend and enhance their continuum of health services for the era of health care reform.


It also provides healthcare organizations with the ability to empower people like Bob Taylor to take a more active role in their health and wellness. "The staff at the wellness center showed me what I needed to do and helped me along the way, but I knew it was up to me to do the work and keep up with my exercise routine,” says Taylor. "I feel great about what I’ve accomplished, and, to be honest, I’m not sure I’d be here today if I hadn’t adopted a healthier lifestyle.”

 [b1]How does this fit the study; the study utilized physical therapists?



1.         Rikli RE, Jones CJ. Senior Fitness Test Manual. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2001.

2.         Pleis J, Ward B, Lucas J. Summary health statistics for U.S. adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2009. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat. 2010;10(249).

3.         Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. obesity trends. 2010;

4.         Blair SN. Physical inactivity: the biggest public health problem of the 21st century. Br J Sports Med. 2009;43(1):1-2.

5.         The Presidents Council on Physical Fitness and Sport. Physical Activity Facts.


 [b1]Reverence 7 needs to be expanded, not enough information


Five Key Words or Phrases

Medical fitness centers


Accountable care organizations

Healthcare reform

Exercise prescription


Article Authors


Peggy McDonagh Bravo, RN, BSN, MA, Vice President Operations, Power Wellness, MFA Member


Wesley R. Waggener, PhD, CSCS, Medical Integration Director, Power Wellness


Power Wellness Management, LLC

2055 W Army Trail Road, Suite 124

Addison, IL 60101


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