WESLEY CHAPEL — Whenever Brian Adams describes the new wellness center going up at Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, he says the same thing: "It won't be like LA Fitness."
Not that there's anything wrong with that fitness chain, the hospital's chief administrator quickly adds.
But what Adams means is that the new 50,000 square foot wellness center to open early next year is medically based. In addition to offering the same type of equipment used by Olympic athletes, it includes monitoring of key indicators of health, such as blood pressure, glucose levels and weight. It also uses a system that keeps track of what you've done and can suggest changes as fitness levels improve or to help keep workouts interesting.
"It's mainly about wellness and holistic health," said Kay Van Der Vaart, who was recently hired as the wellness center's first director. "There's something for fitness enthusiasts or someone who has a chronic condition."
It's a trend that is fast taking hold in hospitals as costs continue to soar and changes in health care laws emphasize preventive care over simply treating people after they get sick or develop chronic conditions.
"We're more comfortable handing out a prescription than we are getting patients to exercise," said Dr. Robert Sallis, a family practice physician from Southern California.
Sallis, along with another doctor, began the Exercise is Medicine movement, an initiative sponsored by the American College of Sports Medicine that encourages doctors to question patients about their exercise habits during office visits and record how many days and minutes they work out. Those who log less than 150 minutes a week are flagged as "inactive" and counseled about ways to become more physically fit.
That doesn't have to include running a marathon, he said. Moderate activity, such as a brisk walk, is fine.
It also encourages doctors to prescribe exercise like they would a drug for conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure, which are linked to a lack of exercise. According to the World Health Organization, data from 2009 shows the lack of physical activity to be the leading cause of death in the United States.
"Active patients cost a third less to care for than inactive patients," Sallis said. The movement is catching on, he said, though some doctors criticize it by saying patients won't follow through.
He counters that by saying studies show that more than half of patients are just as likely to stop taking their pills after six months.
"So they don't do that either," he said.
Van Der Vaart, a 49-year-old baby boomer with 29 years of experience developing fitness programs, said the wellness center is not only for those who need rehab or physical therapy but people who want to stay healthy.
Participants are given a key that they bring and plug into pieces of equipment they use. It will record details of each workout. When they leave, they plug the key into a kiosk that will put the data into the computer system. Staff and doctors can access the information to see how things are going. Those who fail to show up will get an email or a phone call.
The wellness center is not a first for Adventist Health Systems, the Wesley Chapel hospital's corporate parent. The nonprofit, faith-based chain also operates a similar facility in Orlando. The chain has long been known for its emphasis on preventive care and the ties between physical, mental and spiritual health.
"We can be your virtual coach," Van Der Vaart said. Even members who are away on business won't have to abandon their regimen, with staff offering "executive workouts" that can be done in a hotel room.
Van Der Vaart, a lifelong fitness buff whose childhood dream was to be the first female quarterback in the NFL, plans to be on site most of the time.
"I'm usually on a piece of equipment," she said. "I can usually spot someone who needs help and show them how something works." A range of classes also will be offered, from yoga to water aerobics.
Beginning in October, the wellness center will begin selling memberships to the public. Rates for individuals and families are available, though prices have not been announced. Children will get to attend a Kids Club and also be offered an opportunity to exercise while their parents work out.
"It's not like they'll just sit and watch TV," Van Der Vaart said.
Those who sign up will first will be given a health assessment and asked to identify some goals. Those might be losing weight or lowering their medicine dosages or improving flexibility.
"We want to be a partner in people's health," said Van Der Vaart.
Van Der Vaart, whose background includes developing healthy lifestyle programs for businesses, hopes to work with area employers to encourage more people to adopt healthy habits.
Though some bosses might not see that as a worthy investment, Sallis said, it does pay off.
"Study after study has shown employees who do regular exercise miss less work and cost you less in health insurance," he said.