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Exercise as Medicine: FirstHealth Fitness Center

By Allison Wilson

Exercise and healthy lifestyle choices can prevent or help treat 80 percent of chronic illnesses, according to the World Health Organization. So it's no wonder that more and more hospitals are partnering with or opening medical fitness centers, such as FirstHealth Fitness Center in Pinehurst.

"The FirstHealth Fitness Center was unique when it opened in 1995," says John Caliri, Director of FirstHealth Fitness, which owns and operates five medical fitness centers serving more than 11,000 members in Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Raeford, Rockingham and Troy, North Carolina. "Now, there are about 1,200 medical fitness facilities across the U.S. Most are either owned by, or have partnered with, hospital systems. There is a unique role for medical fitness facilities to play in population health management through prevention and caring for those who are well, and those who are at risk, before and after they need the acute health care services associated with a traditional hospital system."

Caliri says that medical fitness facilities need to offer the same services, amenities, and equipment of a commercial facility. However, in addition to traditional fitness services, a medical fitness center includes an extensive intake process, physician oversight, special programming, health education, and specialty services and equipment to serve the entire age and ability spread of the population. Across the country, the average age for a commercial fitness center member is about 30 years old. The average age of a medical fitness facility member? 49.

FirstHealth's mission is "to care for people," which influences the center's decisions about what programs to offer, what equipment to buy, and even where to locate a facility.

"Our program offerings include something for all ages and abilities, from infant/toddler swim lessons up to balance and strength training for seniors," Caliri says. "We offer numerous health education programs, which are open to the general public. You do not need to be a patient to obtain membership. Our staff includes Master's-level exercise specialists who work hand in hand with a registered dietitian, wellness coach and the member to obtain the best results. We work together with various healthcare organizations in our region."

The intake process at FirstHealth includes consultation with the prospective member's physician if he or she is at risk as defined by the American College of Sports Medicine. The Exercise is Medicine program offers a free personalized exercise prescription and a short-term membership for patients who have been referred by their physician. The referring physicians then receive regular communication and progress reports to aid in their treatment of that patient.

"Our referral process also includes referrals out of FirstHealth Fitness into other health care services in the area," Caliri says. "In addition to fitness memberships, our facilities offer cardiac, pulmonary and physical rehabilitation; pre-and post-surgical exercise programs for bariatric surgery; cancer wellness and oncology massage; and employee wellness programs."

Among the most popular programs at FirstHealth are Group Exercise; CrossFit and TRX; the Health Education Lecture Series; American Red Cross Swim Lessons; Yoga; and Senior Exercise Programs. FirstHealth also hosts training programs for runners and races such as a youth triathlon for ages 4-12, which draws up to 300 participants; a Turkey Trot; Reindeer Fun Run and Run for the Ribbons.

FirstHealth Fitness Pinehurst is located at 170 Memorial Drive. Hours of operation are Monday- Thursday from 5:00 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 5 from 5:00 a.m. to 9 p.m., and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 910-715-1800.

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Allison Wilson is an award-winning writer and communications professional whose...

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