Newton-Wellesley’s Secret Weapon Against Family Obesity

… and the importance of being a role model.

by Howard S. King, MD, MPH - Summer 2012

Ed. Note – The diagnosis of childhood obesity presents the physician with classical choices. “Which box to check” (e.g. should the child see a nutritionist?) and even, “Is the child ‘obese’ and should the child be so diagnosed on a school health form?” But perhaps there is an alternative. What does the child and the parent think and, whom might he take after? What about ourselves and might we be more effective role models and by so doing, engage the family with a greater degree of empathy? Might that be an option?

Newton-Wellesley Hospital has an important resource that may be overlooked. It is up the hill, behind the Hospital. It is relatively new so even though I have been here for a long time, I don’t feel guilty that I hadn’t taken advantage of it up to now. But I am grateful I discovered the Shipley Fitness Center.

Thanks to this discovery and a year of trekking up the hill to Shipley three or four times a week, I’ve changed the trajectory of my health. Using the equipment and the talented trainer who helped me realize that my head sits upon a body and system to which I had given short shrift most of my life, I became familiar with my bone and muscles again, which I had disregarded for a long time.

Now, when I mention exercise to those in my practice, I do so with empathy, as if I am saying, “Let me tell you what I have discovered. Maybe you also can become aware of part of yourself you had once been indifferent to as I had been for many years.” The outcome is that I have become more effective in making an impact on childhood and adult obesity in the families whom I treat. It is one thing to prescribe “exercise.” But what about the benefit which we can provide as role models for our patients and families?

If there is anything about which everyone agrees, it is that obesity is one of our major public health problems. As a pediatrician, I have good luck tackling this problem. I wrote about this subject several years ago with some very informed colleagues. It is at is at http://www.cehl.org/decidingtoassess.shtml. It taught me how to take a careful history and discover factors contributing to the onset of obesity in my patients.

But despite such knowledge and spending time to understand obesity there was one factor I overlooked for many years in my clinical practice. I encouraged parents and children to be sure they took part in an exercise program but I must admit, in regard to exercise, I was a hypocrite. I would encourage families to become so engaged but I never took part in exercise, myself. For years I was not just indifferent to exercise, I abhorred it. I had no interest in exercise except for inconsistent walks around the block. Exercise frankly seemed boring. There seemed more interesting things to do.

What challenged me to change my attitude toward exercise? Friends invited me and my wife to stay with them for several days to attend a special event. While staying with them I was unable to keep certain things secret. I was unable to stand from their low couch; I had to lean on the side to stand erect. I also couldn’t get out of their pool without difficulty.

Once acknowledged, my friends urged me to undergo a neurosurgical evaluation. They were worried, based upon an experience of a family friend, that I had a spinal condition that might need surgery. I met with a doctor and it was concluded that I needed MRIs of my spine along with other testing.

But I decided on one last thing before I underwent testing and I consulted a colleague. Doing his own exam, he urged me not to undergo testing but to begin a thorough program of exercise. At first, I began to argue with him saying I had no interest in exercise, only in using my mind and my curiosity for the world around me. He responded with, “You are so limited, if you fall and break your hip, your brain won’t do you any good. See if you can learn ways to develop some strength within your body so you won’t be vulnerable to injury.”

Faced with a choice, I walked over to the Shipley Fitness Center and laid my cards on the table. I met one of the trainers, Sarah, who took a history and then suggested some minor exercises to see what I was capable of and we continued from there. Over time, I changed my attitude and for more than a year I have become involved in a program of exercise including the use of a treadmill and muscle strengthening exercises. I lost twenty pounds and committed myself to exercise even on weekends.

The combination of these aspects of my fitness experience – consistent attendance, the determination I could transform my self-image over time, the desire to be a role model for the families in my practice, and a trainer whom I trusted – was all I needed.

What is the result? I have come closer to making a significant difference in helping those in my practice decide when they, too, are ready to master the problem of obesity by a commitment to exercise and healthier eating. And what did it really take? Saying goodbye to my former self-image and taking advantage of the benefit that Newton-Wellesley offers our community, the Shipley Fitness Center.

One last thing… It is never too late to change.

The Shipley Fitness Center

Located adjacent to the Children's Corner building on the Hospital campus, the Shipley Fitness Center features top-of-the-line LifeFitness cardiovascular and strength training equipment. Classes are offered in the Center’s light-filled, spacious Yoga Studio. An individual membership is $30 a month for employees. A family pass can be purchased for an additional $40, and includes all family members. Information about personal training and group exercise classes can be found on the NWH intranet. Stop in or call 617-243-6644.

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I would like to thank the following for their generous support, without whom this web site and training program would not exist: The Sidney R. Baer, Jr. Foundation, The Alden Trust, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, Project INTERFACE (Newton Public Schools and the U.S. Department of Education), the Locke Educational Fund at Newton- Wellesley Hospital, Aetna Health Plan, the Kenneth B. Schwartz Center,  and the families of my medical practice. 

I hope you find this site useful and encourage any comments.

- Dr. Howard King, M.D.