By Ellen Nason
After winning a Team Up 4 Health scavenger hunt in a park in Pineville, Kentucky, Kelly Wilder was all smiles when she sat down to tell the story of her most valuable discovery: She holds the key to a happier and healthier life. She has rediscovered her own potential and the confidence to make positive behavioral changes that are already showing results.
Wilder, 33, jokingly estimates that, in the last few years, she probably had been walking a total of 30 feet during a day, but in recent weeks, she has completed several challenging hikes and is training to run a 5K race this fall.
“I reached the top of the mountain and couldn’t believe what I had just done,” she says about a recent 10-mile hike in Bell County, Kentucky. “It made me realize that I can do far more than I thought – more than I ever dreamed. Now I know what is possible.”
Wilder, who joined Team Up 4 Health about six weeks ago, credits the program for her newfound confidence and motivation. The program, sponsored by Humana, is implemented by global nonprofit Microclinic International (MCI), and local organizations in southeastern Kentucky. It began as a pilot program in 2011 in Bell County and expanded to Rockcastle County in 2014, in part because of the success of the pilot.
How it works
The concept and goal are simple: Empowering small groups of people – family members, neighbors, friends, church groups – to motivate and influence their own community members to make small behavioral changes in order to live longer, healthier lives. The program, which spans generations, takes health seriously but includes several fun elements, such as the scavenger hunt and forming teams that give themselves names like The Toads, The Fabulous 4, The Golden Girls, The Scorpions, and Movers and Shakers.
The small teams or “microclinics” often share meals or schedule physical activities throughout the week to help each other keep on track with a healthier lifestyle and to hold each other accountable for sticking to it. Once a week, the teams meet with a facilitator from a local health organization for classes. They compare notes, cheer each other on, compete for prizes, and learn about nutrition, exercise and ways to cope with – or prevent – chronic diseases.
Making a difference
Can small groups of two to six participants working on small changes really prevent chronic disease and create lasting, positive change for an entire community?
The numbers show that it is possible: Overall, 95 percent of the 750 initial pilot participants improved in at least one of the following measures: weight, body mass index, waist circumference, HDL (“good”) cholesterol, HbA1c percentage and systolic blood pressure. Additional data from the two-year pilot is available at the Team Up 4 Health website. (Click here to access the report.)
But the best evidence that it can work is listening to the participants, like Wilder, who see and feel the improvements in their own lives. During recent interviews in Bell and Rockcastle counties, other current and former program participants talked about social, emotional and physical changes that are having a positive impact on their total well-being. They talked about the value of feeling they are part of a team: motivating each other, holding each other accountable, inspiring each other and learning to live healthier while having fun with family and friends. They say they have learned that healthier behavior is contagious and are excited to see it spread through their own families and their communities.
They are awakening to the full potential for lifelong well-being in the natural beauty surrounding their communities, awakening to the full potential within themselves.
Ronnie Bullock (Mt. Vernon, Kentucky)
Ronnie Bullock has faced serious health challenges in recent years: stroke, two heart attacks and the loss of a leg. He is 48. Despite the enormous hurdles, Bullock was determined to use the health challenges as motivation to change his life. Since joining the Rockcastle County Team Up 4 Health program a few weeks ago, Bullock has already lost more than 10 pounds and is having fun in the process.
Bullock said the Team Up 4 Health classes have taught him a lot about nutrition and about the importance of being active even if confined to a wheelchair. He said he lost the weight by drastically reducing his intake of soft drinks, eating more vegetables, reducing portion sizes at all meals and learning to do exercises, such as yoga and tai chi, in his chair.
The camaraderie of the teams and the local program facilitator, Lorinda Fletcher, has inspired him to push himself further than he thought possible and has lifted his spirits.
“You have to stay active, be around other people and have fun – no matter what,” he said.
David Smith and Christina Stanfield (Corbin, Kentucky)
David Smith and Christina Stanfield are part of a Team Up 4 Health microclinic that formed a few weeks ago in Corbin. Both are already reporting positive health changes.
Smith said he had not had a routine checkup with his doctor for years but thought he was healthy and in pretty good shape for a 65-year-old until an initial biometric screening for the Team Up 4 Health program revealed some potentially serious issues.
The retired post office worker said the program has demonstrated, in simple terms, that making small lifestyle changes can become healthful habits that last a lifetime – and may increase the length of his own life.
He has lost weight and has more energy since he began eating better and becoming more active. He said it has been gradual and easy changes such as eating fruits and berries for snacks rather than his usual chocolate and pie, and watching less TV and taking more walks.
“It’s about moderation and making small changes that have made a big difference in how I feel,” Smith said. “I think it is going to change my life for the better and for the long run.”
His teammate, Christina Stanfield, agreed that the emphasis on moderation and simple changes has made it easier to make healthier living a lifelong habit and not a short-term goal. She also said better health has been contagious and is spreading to all generations of her family.
“My son’s health has improved, and my grandmother thinks the program is fabulous,” Stanfield said.
Virginia Giles and Willene Black (Bell County, Kentucky)
Virginia Giles and Willene Black participated in the initial pilot program in Bell County. They both began to feel better and learn how easy it is to make good changes. Both say they continue to get support for healthier living from within the community.
“The small changes are important,” said Giles, giving the example of realizing how much hidden sugar she was consuming in a day. She said one of her favorite classes during the program was when the group visited a local grocery store and learned to read nutrition labels.
“I considered myself healthy, but you don’t realize the full impact until you really begin to look at labels and find that some ‘heart-healthy’ labeled foods are much too high in sodium,” she said. “And a wheat bread label doesn’t mean the bread is really whole grain.”
Black attributes much of the program’s success to the fact that participants feel the support of their families and the community as a whole and that it is a simple, step-by-step process that makes the changes easy.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Black said. “It’s opened a whole new world. I didn’t realize how easy it would be to get into a healthier way of living and stay with it. It was like a lifesaver for me.”
Lakin Daniels (Local program facilitator from Bell County Health Department)
“They motivate me to stay healthy as much as I motivate them,” said Lakin Daniels, a Team Up 4 Health program facilitator in Bell County.
Daniels, who began her own journey to better health several years ago, said she has been inspired by the program since attending her first meeting.
“I remember one participant whose initial biometric screening revealed a dangerously high HbA1c (blood sugar) level,” said Daniels. “The participant had no idea it was that high and began to cry as the reality and seriousness of the situation set in.
“As the participant walked away that day, it really hit me how important this program could be,” Daniels said. “I don’t want to say we are saving lives, but maybe … what would have happened if that person had not learned about the serious situation and made an appointment to see a doctor? We are making a difference. Even if it is a small difference, it is going to pay off in the long run.”