“Exercise is Medicine” Program Helps Patient Move Toward Healthier Lifestyles

Jeremy Pritchett, his wife Sarah and their two sons

When Jeremy Pritchett first visited the family medicine clinic at UAB Medicine’s Hoover location, he was thinking mostly about his kidneys. He had just had a kidney stone and Sumayah Abed, M.D., a practitioner at the Hoover clinic and assistant professor in UAB’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, was running follow-up tests.

However, in talking with Abed, Pritchett realized that he wanted to be in a bit better shape – stronger both for himself and for his family. At the time, Pritchett’s wife, Sarah, was pregnant with their second child.

“Part of my motivation, around the time I started seeing Dr. Abed, was that I did not like how I felt trying to play with my older son, who is four years old,” Pritchett said. “I didn’t feel like I had enough energy and I knew I would only need more as our second came along. I wanted to make changes to keep up with them and enjoy things with them long-term.”

Abed referred Pritchett to the department’s Fitness, Lifestyle and Optimal Wellness, or FLOW, program, designed for patients who want to take steps toward a healthier lifestyle. Patients meet with a provider for a thorough evaluation, examining the patient’s health history, physical activity level, diet and nutrition, sleep quality, stress, personality traits, blood metabolic panels, body composition, metabolic rates and cardiac fitness.

Based on those results, providers recommend resources and design a personalized plan for each patient, including educational, dietary and exercise programs. Among the options is a partnership with the Birmingham YMCA, called “Exercise is Medicine.” Patients in the Exercise is Medicine program receive a free two-month membership to the YMCA of Greater Birmingham, which allows them to visit any YMCA in the region and meet with a personal trainer to develop a consistent exercise plan. As of late fall, 33 patients were enrolled in the program, which is being piloted out of the family medicine clinic at UAB Hospital Highlands and aims to both help patients facing chronic illness and prevent chronic problems before they start. Both the Exercise is Medicine and FLOW programs are part of the UAB Grand Challenge, which supports projects tackling large, complex programs, including a Healthy Alabama 2030 initiative aimed at raising the state’s health care rankings.

Dan Pile, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Birmingham, said preventative health measures like the Exercise is Medicine program “are key components of the YMCA’s mission.”

“As part of the public health system, we are uniquely positioned to confront health inequities by partnering with UAB Medicine. When we receive a medical referral, we know we will be working alongside individuals who need a great deal of support,” Pile said.

The downtown Birmingham YMCA location.

“Access to affordable programs that promote lifestyle changes and physical activity is a bit of a challenge for many,” he said. “Our open to and serving all policy ensures full access to the Y regardless of one’s ability to pay. We are more than a gym and swim. We make sure this experience is available to the entire family.”

Mickal Thomas, associate executive director at the YMCA of Greater Birmingham and leader of its personal training program, said most patients come in hoping to lose weight or get more active.

“We put them through an orientation to our equipment, including cardio and strength equipment, and keep in contact with them at least once a week,” Thomas said. “The benefit also extends to any location and to their families, which takes away some barriers, such as availability or child care. That really helps us make it accessible for more people.”

Pritchett decided to give it a shot. He started his complimentary YMCA membership this summer after working with Ian McKeag, M.D., M.S., assistant professor, director of the Family and Community Medicine Sports and Exercise Medicine Fellowship and a physician with the FLOW program. Pritchett and McKeag developed a weight loss and exercise plan, setting goals for weight loss and muscle building.

It worked. Pritchett started going to the gym three times per week and he hasn’t stopped, even when his complimentary membership ended. He became a full member of the YMCA in the fall and hasn’t looked back.

“I grew up playing sports, and ran and lifted weights at times, but I had gotten into a longer rut than usual,” Pritchett said. “The team at the Y introduced me to HIIT training (high intensity interval training) and I go with a friend on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays early in the morning.”

At the time of the interview, Pritchett had lost about 36 pounds and was closing in on his goal weight. He had also started meeting with clinical dietician Caroline Cohen, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., assistant professor family and community medicine, to talk about dietary choices.

“I’ve never been one to look for a diet to lose weight, I’m more interested in changing my mindset for a new lifestyle,” Pritchett said. “Dr. Cohen confirmed the direction I was going and gave me some ideas for snacks and substitutions.”

“Having the support from each of the doctors has been a positive. It helps having someone to encourage you when things get difficult and to let you know when you are doing well,” he said. “Having that positive reinforcement really keeps you motivated.”

The team approach – including support from physicians, dietitians and trainers and staff at the YMCA – gives patients holistic support as they work toward a healthier lifestyle. Patients, especially those facing chronic illness, can also choose to partner with a medical student in UAB’s Dynamic Health student organization. The organization pairs medical students with patients, and students work to keep patients informed, support lifestyle modifications and serve as a resource for patients through follow-up appointments.

“Oftentimes, patients are diagnosed with chronic conditions such as hypertension or diabetes and would like to make lifestyle modifications but are left without proper guidance,” said MS3 student Chibuike Obinwa. “The aim of our organization is to bridge that gap and make sure that patients within our local community are not only well informed about their disease process but have the tools they need in order to make better health choices.”

“We wanted to partner with the YMCA because we felt that our mission to improve individual and community health through nutrition, exercise and disease education was very closely aligned with the YMCA’s mission to build a healthy spirit, mind and body for all.”

If you are interested in getting involved with the FLOW program and Exercise Is Medicine, you can find out more here.

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