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story.lead_photo.caption Erika Setzler, a fitness specialist with the Conway Regional Health and Fitness Center, advises Allison White on her form during a recent workout.

— It’s a new year, and on this day, the Conway Regional Health and Fitness Center, of which Jeramie Hinojosa is director, was brimming with people. Even tucked away into a classroom at the 70,000-square-foot center, one could hear the activity outside, feel it even. And everyone, the svelte and the sweaty, was here to get 2020 off with a bang.

As pleased as he was to see the flow into the gym, Hinojosa has been in this business long enough to know the ebb that will inevitably follow. That’s why he and his team of 60 employees here in various health and fitness specialties constantly and consistently preach the long-term play of consistent effort and making life changes gradually to reach realistic goals, not because it’s sexy or trendy — in fact, their slow-and-steady-wins-the-race tactic is anything but — but because it’s more effective.

“We are promoting lifestyle change, and that’s what works,” Hinojosa said with the tone of someone who’s said it a million times. “It’s not the fad diets; it’s not the latest exercise gimmick. Find what you like to do, and continue to do it because that’s what will work. You don’t have to run a marathon; you don’t have to do Crossfit. You have to move, and that’s the most important thing. It’s not about the number on the scale. Find what you enjoy doing because that’s what you will continue to do.”

To the naked eye, the Conway Regional Health and Fitness Center appears to have its fair share of competition, from retail gyms to workout facilities, on the city’s three college campuses. But it doesn’t take long to see the facility is in a class by itself, offering the usual fitness equipment and sports courts, along with physical therapy, classes of various sorts and partnerships with area physicians.

“We’re medical-based; that makes us unique and gives us some advantages over traditional clubs, in that our relationship with the health system gives us some unique resources,” he said. “As we partner with health care providers, we’re able to develop programs and services that not only develop health and fitness but help medical outcomes.

“We have an opportunity to improve health and medical outcomes, especially for physicians, because the health care environment changes, and they’re starting to get penalized for not keeping their patients healthy. So we have an opportunity to partner with health care providers to develop very targeted exercise and eating plans through unique programs at our center.”

Staffing here is also a key differentiator and something Hinojosa does not shy from touting, he said. For example, Sarah Money, the center’s wellness coordinator, is a registered dietitian who holds advanced degrees and board certification. Those credentials don’t always carry the weight they should with the public, so educating the clientele is a constant, she said.

“There are lots of nutritionists and health coaches everywhere, both online and in person,” Money said. “You have to know who you’re getting your information from. Registered dietitians go through a lot of school. We take a board-certified exam to be nationally licensed and state-licensed. There’s a lot of continuing education that comes along with that.”

The same goes for the personal trainers on staff at the center. Erika Setzler, a fitness specialist, also holds a master’s degree and is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine. She said the quality of her education is particularly important when training first-timers in the weight room, where serious injuries can occur if the training is not done properly.

“A lot of people, you see them for the first time at the gym, and they’re just kind of looking around at the equipment like, ‘What do I use? How do I use it?’” she said. “Sometimes, we’re just here to show someone how to use each machine in the gym and show them a routine. That way, they can figure out what kind of workout they want to do on their own.”

Hinojosa said the medical underpinning of the Health and Fitness Center allows it to harness the collective expertise of internal staff and external medical professionals to address some of the more problematic wellness issues in the community. If it feels a lot like networking, that’s precisely what it is.

“Pre-diabetes is probably one of the prevailing issues, especially with population health, as we are becoming more and more sedentary and finding more convenience foods and additives and things like that,” he said.

“We have a diabetes exercise program, and one of the things we’re developing is a physician advisory board. We already have one in place, and we’re continuing to refine that for the purpose of identifying those populations that need to be served through our unique programming. That is everything, as far as where we get our referrals,” Hinojosa said.

“No. 1, we’ve got to have programs that physicians want to send their patients to, and we have to have a pathway for them to get referred,” he said. “Through this physician advisory board, that’s what we are in the process of doing right now — identifying those conditions that can have the biggest impact on population health.”

“Beyond that, are there other ways of developing referrals into the health and fitness center? There are so many people that you can’t take each person in this room and say, ‘Well you’re cardiac; you’re diabetes.’ We’ve all got these comorbidities, and what we may prescribe for one individual might be very similar to that for another patient.”

It’s estimated that 164 million adult Americans, or 64.6 percent of the population, started 2020 with their minds set on making a positive change or attaining a goal in the new year, per Unfortunately, reports that per 2018 data from social network Strava, those good intentions start to fizzle by the second Friday in January. That means most resolutions hit the wall just over two weeks ago.

“Exercise is the magic pill. It is,” Hinojosa said. “It doesn’t always taste good, but it works. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s the most effective thing. If we can get more people moving, I think we can save health care costs. We can save prescription drugs, have a healthier community, a more vibrant community, a more productive community.”


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