‘Volunteers in Medicine’ looks to CrossFit for a health boost

Some are doing repeated squats holding 12-pound balls. Others are doing pull-ups. 

Nonetheless, they all appear to be enjoying themselves amid all this lifting and resisting. That’s because this group of patients from Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires, having been at this communal CrossFit workout for a month, are doing it with friends, and are now seeing results. 

“I have more energy,” said Sheila Francisco, 18, who works as a waitress. “It helps build endurance, and I feel more energized in the morning.”

Francisco is one of 18 to 21 patients from the free health and dental nonprofit participating in a grant-funded program to keep everyone moving — something known to keep disease and the winter blahs at bay.

VIM’s nurse practitioner and executive director knows — she’s a CrossFitter herself.

“I started to do CrossFit about a year ago,” said Ilana Steinhauer. “I thought this is a perfect way to keep people healthy during the winter months, prevent negative behaviors.”

So, Steinhauer, thinking of a clientele that is often out of work, or working less in the off-season, cooked up this three-month, three-days-per-week program with Michael Bissaillon, the owner of CrossFit Great Barrington with grant money from Direct Relief/Teva Pharmaceuticals to address chronic illness. The workout is just one example of VIM’s protocol of shared medical and dental appointments that both help manage the time of VIM’s volunteer physicians, and help patients support each other. 

In this case, it’s doing a lot more for this particular group.

“There is huge level of isolation, especially in winter months, especially with immigrant populations,” Steinhauer said. “They’re holding each other accountable and trying to prevent isolation.”

Steinhauer says the beauty of using the workout as a healthcare tool is that she can measure things like blood pressure before and after the program.

“Knowing the patients medically, we’re able to understand what we need to focus on,” she said.

She also brings specialists to talk to the group about nutrition, orthopedics, mindfulness, and other topics. 

But first, there is stretching and a warm-up, all translated into Spanish by David Torres, a CrossFit devotee who is helping the group. They all head to the rowing machine, where Torres explains that the goal is to row 2,000 meters. They move on to timed sets of exercises that include lunges and sit-ups.

Diana, 40, who did not want her last name used, said she is finding that her work as a housekeeper is easier because the workout is boosting her energy.

Same for Alma Pablo, 36, who runs a busy house cleaning business and owns a restaurant. 

“I’m eating well,” she said, noting that she’s been adding more salads and vegetables to her diet, and steering clear of excess dairy. She now eats a hard-boiled egg for breakfast. 

Pat Levine, who wrote the grant for the program, stood watching the workout, thrilled at what she said is a group of mothers and grown daughters.

Levine said that VIM doesn’t know the percentage of clientele that are immigrants. 

“We don’t ask — we don’t want to know,” she said. 

She said the nonprofit wants to serve people who need care, and doesn’t want to do anything that might keep them out. 

And Steinhauer isn’t the only healthcare worker looking to CrossFit to take lifestyle factors in hand for her patients. A new initiative within the CrossFit workout movement is CrossFit Health, a response by the company to what it suggests is a warped mainstream medical approach to health, backed by studies skewed by corporate money.

“The inexorable rise of chronic disease, which is taking 70 percent of lives needlessly and prematurely, has two root causes: excess carbohydrate consumption and sedentarism,” says the CrossFit Health website. “From the onset of this epidemic, official response from our universities, government institutes of health, and our very own doctors was to promote a high-carb, low-fat, margarine-greased descent into ever-worsening disease and death.”

CrossFit Inc.’s founder and CEO is, for instance, on a mission to unveil and disrupt what he says is the influence of “big soda” money on national health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bissaillon says the VIM group is already stronger, after just one month.

“It’s in the numbers — they’re doing almost double the amount of work,” he said.

But make no mistake — it’s still work.

“Misery loves company, so they really work well together,” he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.

By Heather Bellow from the Berkshire Eagle


Editor-in-Chief and founder of WeRCrossFit.com. Web developer for the stars of CrossFit, and all-around fitness enthusiast and fan.

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