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Wellness centers give soldiers extra push to fitness

May. 14, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Health Educator Erin Flaherty conducts an Ultrasound body fat test on Bob Delcuore on May 1 at the Aberdeen Army Wellness Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.
Health Educator Erin Flaherty conducts an Ultrasound body fat test on Bob Delcuore on May 1 at the Aberdeen Army Wellness Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
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Wellness Center locations:

These centers have opened, and several more are planned to open soon:
■Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.
■Carslile Barracks, Pa.
■Fort Bliss, Texas.
■Fort Bragg, N.C.
■Fort Carson, Colo.
■Fort Hood, Texas
■Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
■Fort Riley, Kan.
■Fort Sill, Okla.
■Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
■Bavaria, Germany
■Stuttgart, Germany
■Vincenza, Italy
■Landstuhl, Germany


Soldiers and civilians are volunteering to lose weight, reduce stress and try new workout plans with the help of Army wellness centers at installations in the U.S. and Europe.

Through these clinics, the Army hopes to improve employees’ lives and reduce long-term health care costs by preventing chronic illnesses, especially heart disease.

Fourteenclinics have been established, 18 are expected to be open by year’s end, and the Army’s goal is 37 or 38worldwide by 2017.

“We can’t afford an active sick-care system,” said Wayne Combs, who leads the program for Army Public Health Command. “We really focus on identifying and eliminating the risk factors upfront. We know it’s inactivity, being overweight and poor diet.”

At Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., where an Army wellness center opened in January, it is less common to see fit soldiers jogging in physical training uniforms than civilians such as Robert DelCuore, a 51-year-old systems engineer who works in a highly technical but sedentary job.

Inspired by a co-worker’s weight loss, DelCuore came to the wellness center and was surprised to learn he was considered obese.

On the first visit, he underwent a test that gauged the speed of his metabolism and showed how many calories he needed to eat each day to lose weight: 1,800.

After three months of counting calories, taking walks at lunchtime and trading fast food for home-cooked meals, he lost 27 pounds.

“It’s free, and the people here are great,” DelCuore said. “The staff here make it easy. They’re friendly and encouraging.”

While such programs are becoming more prevalent in the private sector for their potential to cut costs, the savings are difficult to verify. A recent study published in the journal Health Affairs, for example, concluded that a St. Louis hospital’s wellness program reduced hospitalizations but did not save money for the employer.

The services at the wellness centers can cost as much as $3,000 to the Army, but they are offered free to participants, and the Army’s own research concluded there is positive return on the investment, Combs said. However, he declined to provide the specific data.

Military health care costs are significant and rising rapidly. The Congressional Budget Office projects the Defense Department’s health care spending will surge from $51 billion this year to $65 billion by 2017 and $95 billion by 2030. DoD’s 2013 appropriations request for the Defense Health Program and the Medicare Eligible Retiree Health Care Fund was approximately 7.4 percent of its total request.

Army surgeon general Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho’s emphasis on preventive medicine has driven the growth of Army wellness centers as a partial response. In congressional testimony last year, Horoho said she was committed to expanding the numbers and capabilities of clinics to reach troops not only in doctor’s offices but in the “lifespace.”

The staff at these clinics conduct a basic health assessment and use evidence-based methods to help clients shape and reach fitness goals.

“A lot of that is what we find out when we talk to you,” Combs said.

Staff members, who typically have health education, exercise science or nursing backgrounds, offer tips based on nationally recognized guidelines for alleviating stress, for healthier eating and for sleeping better.

On the clients’ monthly visits, the counselors will follow up to see whether the client’s tailor-made plan is working.

Though offerings vary by location, the clinics typically provide fitness and stress management counseling in-house. By and large, smoking cessation counseling, clinical dieticians and behavioral health specialists are available by referral.

The plan is to standardize the services from post to post, “so if I started at one post, I can pick up at another post where I left off,” Combs said.

A version of the health questionnaire for participants is available online. Called the AWC Fitness Tracker, the document includes questions about a participant’s nutrition, activity, sleep, tobacco use, alcohol use and stress levels and provides an overall wellness score.

All visits are voluntary, though supervisors may recommend an employee go to a wellness center, Combs said.

Lt. Col. Cornell Lofton is a 48-year-old personnel specialist at Aberdeen who injured his knee, elbow and Achilles’ tendon while training in Iraq in 2010. He came in because his injuries limited his ability to exercise, and he did not feel comfortable at 179 pounds.

Based on the advice of the counselors, Lofton began counting calories, eating more fresh fruits and salads, and eating small meals all day instead of a couple of big meals. He also extended his stationary bike workout by 15 minutes.

Lofton dropped from 179 to 169 pounds in the first month and weighed 165 by the third month. Aside from the visible difference, he said he gained the energy to play with his 11-year-old son.

“That was the biggest thing,” he said.

The program has benefits even for employees who appear fit.

Ray Schulze, an in-shape 49-year-old branch chief at Aberdeen, said he had been lifting weights regularly. But Schulze learned at the wellness center he needed to be working out his heart and not just his biceps — and was given a new workout program.

“I’ve lost 10 pounds, and the first thing I noticed was I could pull my belt buckle two notches in,” Schulze said. “Now I go to the gym and I prioritize it. No choice.”■

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