Chronically ill, aging and obese find better health, friendship at the gym

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When Bill Gressette was in his mid-70s, an autoimmune disease confined him to a hospital bed. He feared he’d never get out of it. But these days, you can find Gressette, 85, in the HealThy Self gym at Bon Secours St. Francis’ Millennium campus.

When Gressette was discharged from the hospital, his doctor sent him to work out in the gym for pulmonary rehab. At first, Gressette – whose nickname is “Tip Top” – resisted, saying, “I didn’t want to come to the gym.” But the octogenarian did what he was told and found that he loved it.

“I got hooked like on crack cocaine and have been here ever since – six days a week,” he says. “I work out from 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.”

The biggest draw for the retired dentist was social. Gressette knows everyone who comes to the HealThy Self, and when he doesn’t, he smiles, introduces himself and quickly befriends any new faces.

“I’ve got more friends here than anywhere else in the world, and how many people have friends at age 85?” Gressette says. “We have people coming in carrying oxygen tanks, people in wheelchairs, people who are restricted in what they can do and cannot do, and most come here after a medical crisis.”

Social reinforcement is the key to most people’s exercise habits. They play tennis with friends, run with a group, join after-work team sports or sweat in a gym where they see the same people every morning. But for many older, chronically ill or obese people, there are few places where they can comfortably combine fitness training with people who are like them. The HealThy Self gym at the Millennium campus is one such place.


“I got hooked like on crack cocaine and have been here ever since – six days a week.”

Bill Gressette


Exercise Is Medicine

BSSF isn’t alone. Several area YMCAs host the Exercise Is Medicine program, a global initiative from the American College of Sports Medicine, which is designed to reach people who need exercise but who are scared away from traditional fitness routines because of health issues. The Greenville Exercise Is Medicine program is the first collaborative that combines a medical school, health system and YMCA, says Scot Baddley, chief executive officer and president of the YMCA of Greenville.

The local program, which has enrolled a few dozen people initially, includes staff from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville and a Greenville Health System (GHS) physician and care coordinator, Baddley says.

“When someone is identified in need of physical activity and an intervention to address specific chronic diseases, the physician has to have a place to refer that patient for physical activity,” Baddley says.

Class sizes are 10-12 people, lasting 12 weeks with twice-weekly exercise routines, supervised by a professional who helps participants build strength and endurance. People are enrolled based on doctor referrals, and everyone participating is obese and has a chronic illness, such as diabetes and hypertension.

Participants exercise at the GHS Life Center, Caine Halter Family YMCA Downtown, Eastside Family YMCA in Taylors, GHS Family YMCA in Simpsonville and the George I. Theisen Family YMCA in Travelers Rest. The cost to participate is $199, but the YMCA also offers scholarships for those with financial need.

“There’s scientific evidence that the right kind of physical activity can be more effective than prescribing medicine,” Baddley says.

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Motion Is Lotion

Exercise also can help people improve their mental health, says Dr. Bobby Masocol, who is on the faculty for the family medicine residency and sports medicine fellowship at GHS. Masocol was involved with the pilot program site for Exercise Is Medicine.

“I’ve had a patient get off her depression medication,” Masocol says. “A lot of people have received improvement in their mental health, because they have a social support structure within the program.”

The program’s focus on group exercise activities leads to improved moods, greater motivation and a reinforcing social support structure, he says, adding, “People are motivated and want to go back.”

Another new exercise program that targets people who are obese or who have chronic illnesses was started at Doctor for Life on Tanner Road in Greenville. The physician clinic includes a workout room with a personal trainer who guides and supervises patients to make certain they exercise safely, says Dr. Cheryl Sarmiento, medical director and co-owner of Doctor for Life, which opened this fall.

The small gym and its lap pool were designed to feel homey, a place where obese and overweight people can exercise without the stigma they might face in a conventional gym, Sarmiento says.

“Motion is lotion,” she says. “Being active keeps you agile and strong, and our personal trainers make it fun and enjoyable to exercise.”

Socialization Is Healing

BSSF was among the first to recognize the need for a stigma-free place to exercise.

“We have people who wouldn’t be comfortable exercising in a traditional gym setting, and that may be because they’re overweight and have body image issues, or they have a chronic condition that they don’t feel like people in a traditional gym would understand,” says Pat Barnes, director of HealThy Self.

The health system opened its Vitality Center on the main hospital’s 10th floor in 1987, eventually evolving into the HealThy Self program at the Millennium campus.

“The program is open to the community and anyone can join,” Barnes says. “Clinical programs like cardiac rehab and pulmonary rehab require a physician referral, and exercise is a standard part of treatment after a heart attack or bypass surgery.”

The fitness center provides a safe place for people who are chronically ill to exercise with the oversight of clinical staff.

“If you join the medical fitness program, you can come as long as you like – for the rest of your life,” Barnes says. “The basic fee is $35 per month, and people can come any time we’re open for that price.”

Each fitness center attendee receives an exercise assessment, including their biometrics of height, weight and percentage of body fat.

“We have 500 members now and that comes to 67,000 visits a year,” Barnes says.

“Tip Top” Gressette is a good example of a HealThy Self regular attendee, and his attitude of being “nice to people because it’s not hard to say a kind word” goes a long way toward bringing people back to the gym.

“A lot of people in the beginning don’t want to speak,” Gressette says. “So every time we see them, we talk to them. They might want to be in a corner, but we don’t allow that, and before long they’re hooked.”

The friendly atmosphere could be doing more to bring in repeat exercisers than the prospect of better health, Barnes suggests.

“People get so much out of the socialization here,” Barnes adds. “Chronic diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are very isolating, so if people have a place where they can be with other people who have the same issues, it’s a tremendous help for depression.”

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