Defining wellness and how you and Aurora are going to measure up
You know an apple is better for you than a slice of apple pie. You know what it takes to be able to fit into your skinny jeans — the “someday” ones you’ve had hiding in your closet since freshman year of college — and you know it doesn’t involve an afternoon of TV. You know what it takes to be healthy. So, why aren’t you?
Blame it on the volatile, taxing, unpredictable nature of life. You’re underpaid, overworked, you sleep through the night about as well as an infant, and the notion of improving your health just translates to you as more work.
Sometimes it’s just easier to end your days with a glass of wine, a slice of Chicago-style pizza (or three) and mull over the idea of going to the gym more often, instead of actually doing it. It’s OK, you can admit it. That’s not some days. That’s most days.
Lucky for us, we live in a city that understands and is willing to make the road to getting healthy seem a little less laden with potholes. Aurora recently adopted a plan paving the way for more bike paths. City lawmakers last year found money in the city budget to revamp Beck Recreation Center at a cost of $7 million to meet the demands of health-minded residents. There are a growing number of traditional and trendy places to swim, sweat or hold that pose. Best of all, Aurora is home to the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, a state-of-the-art facility on what used to be Fitzsimons in northwest Aurora.
The center invites the public and boasts a host of wellness services that typical fitness centers don’t: assessment, massage, acupuncture, psychological consultations, plastic surgery, meditation, dieticians, chiropractic services and cooking demonstrations. Its comprehensive and holistic approach to health makes it different from any other gym or health institution in the state, said Molly Kemmer, general manager of the fitness center. “What we’re doing here is truly unique,” she said. Almost all the staff members at the center have alphabet soup in their official titles, meaning they have impressive credentials. Some have bachelor’s degrees in exercise physiology and are certified personal trainers, others have Ph.D’s and decades of experience in the realm of health and wellness. “That puts us in the upper echelon as far as quality,” Kemmer said. Although Kemmer works primarily in the fitness center, she regularly communicates with the dieticians and therapists in other areas of the building to cater to each client’s health needs. “The most differentiating factor for us is our team’s ability, desire and passion to create relationships with people to answer the deeper question of why people are coming to see us,” she said. For some staff members, the mood at the wellness center is infectious. Clients and employees alike motivate each other on a daily basis in an environment where everyone wants to improve their health, and in turn, their life. Donielle Montoya, clinical business manager for the wellness center, said she felt the need to change her own lifestyle after working at the center. When Montoya first started her job, she admitted she was a bit heavier. But the desire to get in shape was contagious, she said. “It’s a feeling you have when you first walk in, you say, ‘I want to be a part of this.’”
The Health and Wellness Center is the epicenter of healthy living in Aurora
It’s the brainchild of Executive Director James O. Hill, who understands that getting fit may seem burdensome. Hill, a slender man with vibrant blue eyes and peppered white hair, is the kind of person who won’t pass judgment when you drown your iced tea in Splenda to wash down a brownie and complain that it’s too late, or too early, or too cold outside to work out. Hill’s outlook on fitness is all about taking a more holistic approach to health than, say, a 24-hour Fitness. He’s helped create a center that focuses on improving a person’s overall health by offering science-based exercise and diet regimens as well as alternative therapies including acupuncture and massage therapy. The center also boasts trained dieticians and psychologists to help people cope with stress and deal with their muddled heads.
That approach explains the dichotomy between the words, “health” and “wellness” in the center’s name. In Hill’s eyes, everyone should be “accumulating wellness.” That doesn’t mean shedding pounds just because two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese and the threat of obesity is more prevalent than ever before. It means focusing on all aspects of your health, including “mind, body and purpose.” “It’s not just about losing weight,” Hill said. “If you lose weight and you’re not physically active and managing your stress, that’s only one tiny part of you being well.”
Hill grew up in Tennessee, one of the fattest states in the country, but back then, obesity wasn’t yet a problem. He received his PhD in physiological psychology from the University of New Hampshire and previously worked in the fields of psychology, nutrition, exercise science and behavior at Emory University and Vanderbilt University before joining the University of Colorado. In the 1980s, Hill started researching how animals — specifically rats — regulate weight. A few years later, studies began to emerge that showed obesity in humans was becoming epidemic. He wondered why. “I was realizing that it wasn’t just an interesting scientific question, it was a threat to health and quality of life to our country,” he said. “Unless we get a handle on this, it’s literally going to change the way we live.”
All his life, Hill has wholeheartedly believed in balance. He’s never forsaken his favorite foods (sushi being one of them) in an effort to lose weight, and he dines out often while keeping a weekly exercise routine. But that balance is hard to achieve, which is why he found the concept of a wellness center so intriguing. With a grant from the Anschutz family, Hill was able to launch the idea for an all-under-one-roof health institution located in Aurora, a city that he says, frankly, needs help with fitness. Aurora residents’ income and education levels aren’t as high as some places in Colorado, Hill says, and those are factors that directly correlate to inhibiting healthy lifestyles. It’s no easy task motivating Aurora residents to do more for their health, but it’ll be worth the effort if he can persuade them that it’ll pay off in the long run.
“If you look at the people in Colorado who are really most active, and into healthy lifestyles, they would tell you they do it not for their health but because it’s fun,” he said. “Somehow we’ve got to equate healthy lifestyle with fun and high quality of life and living, and I think we have to engage the whole state in this.”
Currently, about 90 percent of the people who take advantage of the services offered at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center are either employees or patients of with the Anschutz Medical Campus. The rest of the wellness center’s clientele is made up of residents from the surrounding community, but Hill is hoping to draw more clients as more people become aware of the facility. He’s adamant about bringing some of the wellness center’s philosophies to people who aren’t involved with the campus, which is how the 5th Gear Kids program got started.
Hill figured that if he could encourage fifth graders to make the right decisions about healthy eating on their own by infusing a bit of fun into a nutrition lesson, they’d share their newfound wisdom with their friends and parents. Hill teamed up with Aurora Public Schools in mid-2012, gave teachers a general curriculum to follow as they saw fit, and what resulted was an unprecedented enthusiasm for healthy lifestyles among the fifth graders who participated. “In my 10 years of teaching, this is probably one of the most engaging curriculums I’ve presented to kids in terms of providing motivation to be physically active and to understand nutrition,” said Christopher Magrin, K-8 physical education coordinator at VistaPEAK. Magrin taught the kids how to read food levels, how to balance food intake with physical activity, and solicited help from representatives of 24 hour Fitness and the YMCA who demonstrated workouts. The 5th Gear Kids program has also partnered with grocer King Soopers to provide kids cards that will reward them for making healthy food choices. Points can then be exchanged for things like free meals, movie tickets or basketballs. By the end of the 2012-13 school year, almost 7,000 kids in Aurora Public Schools will have been exposed to the 5th Gear Kids program. Hill said the curriculum doesn’t encourage restrictive eating. Instead, it promotes the sort of balance between food and exercise that is ubiquitous at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. “We never tell these kids ‘You can’t eat candy,’” Hill said. “What we tell them is how candy fits in, and if you choose to eat candy, then you need to balance that with activity.”
Nutrition: More than one-third of American adults are obese and another third are overweight
The reasons why aren’t shrouded in secrecy. They’re in plain view. They’re in your pantry, in your refrigerator, in your car, on your desk, across the street — everywhere. Gone are the days when humans burned calories all day long during the process of hunting for food. “If you look at how we live now, we have everything at our disposal to keep us sedentary,” said Kim Gorman, senior dietician at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center.
It’s no wonder why people are so overwhelmed by the notion of getting healthier when unhealthy food is so easy to come by and there are unlimited amounts of confusing information about diet and weight loss. The problem lies in the gap between a person’s common-sense knowledge of unhealthy foods and the stressors in their life that hinder them from eating well. After all, during Gorman’s entire career — one that has spanned over two decades — she has only come across two people who thought potato chips were nutritious. But the truth is, eating healthy and exercising is hard, particularly because it’s so incredibly easy to do the opposite. When you’ve had a long stressful day at work and someone brings a chocolate pecan pie to a dinner party, it’s irresistible. Gorman, an upbeat woman with curly, brown hair and a compassionate air about her, knows that.
“People hold the expectation that they should have utter control in the weakest moment,” she said.
As Gorman talks about her work in an airy room in the wellness center, it’s clear that she’s equal parts nutritionist and psychologist. Her interest in the field stemmed from a teacher in middle school who captivated her with lessons on health. But that wasn’t her initial career path. She went to aeronautical school for a year after high school, and then later decided to pursue her interest in nutrition. She holds a bachelor’s in nutrition science from Ohio University and a master’s in exercise physiology from the University of Akron. Her job now is to be a “lifestyle rehabilitator.” When she sits down with a client, she doesn’t bombard them with information about fruits and vegetables and the food pyramid. She finds out what excites people, what prevents them from taking care of themselves, what stressors dominate their lives. Then, she translates that into a physical fitness and diet routine that will empower and motivate them.
Sometimes, she’s cunning. People will ask to meet with her, and they’ll have only one goal in mind: to lose weight. Gorman will tell them exactly what they need to eat, what their caloric expenditure should be, and send them on their way. Then, her job is to wait. Gorman thrives on the moment when a client tells her they can’t keep up with the demands of the diet, and they’re ready to give up. That’s the “opportune moment” to take a more holistic approach, and work on overhauling a person’s lifestyle. The goal is to dig deep and develop an approach to fitness that allows for mistakes and mishaps, but also makes room for magnificent strides.
“We can give you statistics and research but if we can’t get it to fit into who you are and your lifestyle, then we haven’t done our job,” she said.
Roughing It: Cross Fit Offers Basics Training
few miles from the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, with its shiny chrome fitness equipment and well-credentialed physiology experts who double as motivational personal trainers, is a gym where the most high-tech piece of exercise equipment is an old car tire.
At Buckley CrossFit, 700 S. Buckley Road in Aurora, the differences between the two fitness philosophies are striking. There’s no talk about holistic health, or lactic acid levels created from one machine to another. Instead, here, your body is the machine. There’s one trainer, a handful of ropes, some metal monkey bars and old car tires — items you’d find maybe in a storage shed. The “Workout Of the Day” is scribbled on a whiteboard, and the list of today’s gritty exercises is, well, scary. They include ‘terrible tag,’ and a variety of pull-ups, box jumps and lifting exercises involving tires which are done repeatedly over a period of 20 minutes.
But what Cross-Fit lacks in elegance, it gains in hardiness. Coach Dan Raabe knows that his exercise routine isn’t for timid, first-time exercisers who want to ease into the gym like they might slide into a tub of water a little on the cool or steamy side. Life isn’t easy. Neither is this.
Sure, the intense physical routine of pull-ups, push-ups, box jumps and heavy lifting might leave a person’s muscles sore for days. But so what? “Take an Advil; everyone hurts,” he said before a recent class. “Would you rather hurt from inactivity?” CrossFit is a concept originally developed by Greg Glassman, and the fitness regimen is described as “high intensity, constantly varied, functional movement.” Gymnastic rings, barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells are common in CrossFit gyms. Raabe stumbled upon Cross-Fit by happenstance about a decade ago, when he came to a personal resolution while living in Japan selling 3D software. “I didn’t want to grow up in my 50s and 60s and be an old couch potato,” he said. He moved to Colorado and started taking self-defense classes, then found Cross-Fit. The first two classes were hard, he admits. But he kept at it, and six months later, he had lost 30 pounds. Nowadays, he teaches groups of about a dozen people at a gym that shares space with A-1 Boxing Fitness while also working as a professional photographer. His passion for Cross-Fit is palpable, but he admits coaches tend to take themselves a bit too seriously. “There’s a bit of an ego about it,” he said. Still, he’s solid proof that the exercises work. His ultimate belief is that the best way to go about getting in shape is to work hard, and go all in. “I don’t think you need to just do the simple chain exercises,” he said. “You need to learn to move.” n
Human Performance Lab: Elite training makes its way to mainstream Colorado
Competition runs through Kathryn Pennington’s veins. She has a zeal for running like that of her
grandfather, an Ecuadorian national who could have been the fastest runner in his town — if only he had the right shoes. His family couldn’t afford to replace his ragged street shoes with the high-intensity running shoes that had become all the rage. And so it happened that those who could afford them, left him in the dust.
Kathryn, a 17-year-old junior at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, is determined not to let her potential pass her by.
She arrives at the Human Performance Lab at the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center looking like the epitome of a high school athlete: no makeup, brown hair twisted into a bun, pinned to the sides of her head and held together with a headband. Sneakers on, shorts and T-shirt are hidden underneath her oversized, black sweatpants and sweatshirt. Her outfit is perfect for the morning’s program, which is to run at different intensities on a treadmill connected to monitors that measure a host of physiological parameters including her heart rate, cell function and lung performance.
Her goal is simple: she wants to win races. Her father, Bruce, says she’s found her body’s limit, and she needs to know how to extend it.
“She’d get to the end of the race,” he said, “that last bit where you know you need to kick it into high gear and get every ounce of your body to pass as many people as you can in the final stretch, and her mind was there saying, ‘It’s time, it’s time,’ but her body was saying, ‘I don’t have anything else left to give.’”
She’s come to the right place. If the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center is the epicenter of fitness in Aurora, the Human Performance Lab is the pinnacle. And if anyone knows the secret to winning, or at least how to improve a human body’s athletic prowess, it’s Inigo San Millan, director of the Human Performance Lab. San Millan, a former professional cyclist and soccer player who hails from the Basque Country in northern Spain, has worked with elite athletes around the world for years using performance lab equipment that was previously only available to Olympians-in-training. He’s known for having successfully improved recreational and professional athletes’ performances by giving them specific training and nutrition regimens that are gleaned from their own unique, physiological data.
San Millan has been working with performance lab equipment for more than 15 years and knows first-hand how it can help transform a good athlete into a great athlete. In 2008, he lost 50 lbs by prescribing himself an exercise regimen based on results from his own lab tests while continuing to eat his traditional high-carb, Mediterranean diet.
Kathryn, who’s running on the treadmill in San Millan’s small laboratory, looks like a hospital patient on a fitness kick. Most of her face is covered by an oxygen mask connected to a computer monitor that’s measuring her heart rate. San Millan, hands in latex gloves, pricks her finger to draw blood every now and then. She runs for about 30 minutes, starting at 6 miles per hour and increasing steadily to 8.5 miles per hour. When she’s done, the mask comes off in a fury, she’s breathing heavily, and her face is strawberry-colored. She takes big swigs from a water bottle handed to her by her parents, the pair that have nurtured her passion for running since she was a little girl.
Kathryn was in the sixth grade when her father knew she had a talent for running. She had joined the Colorado Springs Landsharks Run Club, and one day, Bruce watched her practice. He wanted to run alongside her to provide some encouragement during the last few laps, only to find that he could barely keep up with her. He blamed it on his street shoes and day clothes, but sure enough, she darted off like a rocket at her school’s mile-long race a short time afterwards, clearly ahead of the pack. “I always tried to beat the boys,” Kathryn said. “I kind of scared them. That’s when I knew I really loved running.” But Kathryn is no longer a young girl running for fun as part of a club. She is now a competitive runner who wants to take the next step and excel at the activity, in hopes of eventually earning a scholarship for college.
After she’s had about 10 minutes to cool down, San Millan sits her down and talks science. The results from her physiological tests are available immediately on his computer screen and they show that her heart rate started at 132 beats per minute and progressed to 185 over the course of her workout. As her heart rate increased, her lactate levels also increased — from 0.8 to 4.9, which San Millan identifies as the primary culprit that’s hindering her performance. Lactate is what decreases the pH levels in your body, which in turn creates the burning sensation that runners often get when their legs feel like lead toward the end of a race. Eventually, the lactate levels will become high enough that runners will hit a wall and won’t be able to push themselves any further. The more you can delay lactate from increasing, the better lactate metabolism you’ll have, and the longer and faster you can run, he says. Kathryn also has a lack of glycogen in her muscles, which is important for energy storage. Running with low glycogen levels is like operating a car without gas, San Millan says. He suspects that might be a result of over-training, and he advises her to get a blood analysis in the coming weeks to confirm that.
San Millan recommends an overhaul of her daily food intake to increase her energy levels. On a typical day, she eats French toast, bacon, berries and a protein shake in the morning, a chicken sandwich, apples and chips for lunch, and a steak or spaghetti for dinner. He advises her to give up snacking on pretzels and cheese crackers throughout the day and stick to only three meals. She’s not eating enough for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and San Millan strongly suggests she boost her carbohydrate intake. “We live in a society where carbs are the enemy, but not for competitive athletes. Don’t be afraid of eating carbs,” he said. The world’s best runners, like those in Kenya, have a diet that consists of 76 percent carbohydrates and 20 percent simple sugars, he said.
San Millan, a lover of chocolate, told Kathryn that if she was craving sugar or greasy, fast food at any point, she shouldn’t deprive herself of it; just do it in moderation. “Never be a slave to your diet,” he said. And about those protein shakes: chocolate milk is just as good as any protein shake on the market, and infinitely cheaper, he said. Not only that, but an expensive protein bar can be interchanged with a Snickers bar, two Fig Newtons, or a small peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The two-hour consultation with a price tag of about $450 concluded, and Kathryn walked out of San Millan’s lab with a renewed sense of motivation, especially happy about his suggestion to eat more. “That’s a quick fix. I love eating, so that’s perfectly fine for me,” she said.
She plans to get blood tests done, which will give San Millan a better idea of what exercise regimen to prescribe, at what specific intensities. Kathryn hopes that she’ll be able to make it into the top 10 or five placements in her remaining track and cross country seasons by using lessons learned at the Human Performance Lab. Overall, the experience was as unique as it was enlightening.
“It’s different because he watches you while you’re working out, while you’re pushing your body, so the results can come from something really concrete,” she said. It’s especially important to have an individually tailored regimen when athletes are often bombarded with contradicting information from books, websites and commercials about nutrition and exercise plans, she said. “There’s so many philosophies out there that you can get caught up in,” she said, “so having a concrete philosophy to follow is helpful.”
The Anschutz Health and Wellness Center has only been open less than a year, but success stories are already plentiful. Judy Primeaux, for example, remembers when lumbering from the parking lot to the wellness center check-in desk felt like running a 100-yard dash. By the time she got there, she was completely out of breath. “I had reached a level of unfit to where I could barely even function,” said Primeaux, 62. After five months, she was able to walk almost half a mile without gasping for air, she lost 15 lbs, shed 14 inches from her middle, and gained a new outlook on life. Now, she’s well on her way to meeting her goal of losing 110 pounds.
She attributes her successes to the wellness center’s holistic approach to fitness, and the resolute staff members who have helped her improve every aspect of her health from exercise to therapy and therapeutic massage. “We never saw this as a diet from the beginning. It’s a change in lifestyle,” said Primeaux, director of pharmacy and finance at the Hemophilia and Thrombosis Center at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Primeaux grew up in Louisiana, eating typical Creole cuisine, and a lot of it.
“Louisiana French culture shows you that they love you by feeding you,” she said.
When she moved to Colorado about two decades ago, she became immersed in the daily minutia of life and work. The pounds kept adding up, and exercise seemed less and less important. She was eating about 3,000 calories a day — mostly in the form of fast food — and caring for her body wasn’t one of the items on her To Do list. Then, one day earlier this year, she realized she was heading down a path that put her at risk of serious health problems including diabetes. She went to three recreation centers to try and put together a pool exercise program for herself. “Once I got there I didn’t know if what I was doing was right or hurting my joints,” she said. In April, she decided to see what the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center was all about. With the help of staff members at the wellness center, she’s reduced her daily calorie intake to about 1,800 calories, now shops at farmer’s markets for fresh food to prepare for dinner and is navigating through her emotional feelings toward food with her dietician. “It’s about rethinking how I use food in my life, and learning to use it for fuel,” she said.
Fitness comes to me
They say numbers don’t lie, but couldn’t they, just this once?
My overall wellness score is a measly 58.3 out of 100. My resting heart rate is 5 beats per minute outside of the normal range. My grip strength is 46.9 lbs, which is considered poor by Anschutz Health and Wellness Center standards, and my total fitness score is a measly 2 out of 16. Really?
OK, I know I’m not athletic. But I would assume that I’m in better shape than the worst of the worst, people who probably score zero or one on the fitness scale. I can’t say anything about my eating habits because I tend to munch on whatever is easiest between assignments. Sometimes, my day starts with cold pizza and ends with a frozen breakfast burrito. But the assessment isn’t all about fitness; it’s about my emotional health as well. A 20-minute survey reveals that I’m moderately stressed (that feels low), my sleep patterns are considered ‘good’ (but what about the nightmares?) and I’m generally satisfied with my life (whatever that means.) Instead of feeling empowered and motivated to get working on my health with the results from my November wellness assessment, I feel almost defeated. Overall, the results of my wellness assessment aren’t surprising. It takes hard work to become healthy in every sense of the word, and motivation is lacking in that area.
I’m a stressed-out 25-year-old with a life to figure out, how healthy can I expect to be? I realize now that almost all my life I’ve had a habit of equating overall health to weight. Growing up, I was the embodiment of the word “spindly.”
I never played team sports, but I was a competitive figure skater for years, which is how I justified being able to eat whatever I wanted. Then, college hit. And so did midnight pizzas and covert beer runs. I quit ice-skating, and fitting a gym routine into schoolwork and social life didn’t exactly happen. I’d go through phases of working out heavily and then, nothing.
Nowadays, I try to exercise at least three times a week, I recently ran my first 5K, and I weigh around 130 lbs. But it’s hard to keep it up. The last thing I want to do when I get home from work is, well, do more work. And to say I’m not a morning person is putting it mildly. I can barely function when I wake up, and coffee makes my stomach hurt, so I suffer through my zombie-like state. I have to admit, I do feel better about life when I walk out the doors of my gym sweaty and exhausted, but the problem is, I don’t see results. Either I’m not exercising hard enough or long enough or I’m not doing it right. I’m impatient, and if I don’t lose weight or gain muscle within a few weeks, I’ll lose ambition.
The thing about it, though, is I know I’m not alone. Sometimes, all we need is someone else to help us out, motivate us, inspire us, and give us tools to help us feel accomplished. It can be anyone — a personal trainer, a cadre of health specialists at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, or just a good friend. After all, it’s nearly impossible for someone who doesn’t know the first thing about physical fitness to prescribe a personal exercise routine for themselves. Getting well, fit and healthy might seem like a burden, but sometimes, all you need to do is share the weight with someone else.