Solving a common health risk: Emerson class attacks the metabolic syndrome


“I should do something weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, lack of exercise.” Often it is a voice in one’s head, and sometimes other factors, such as family history, that provide the necessary motivation to change behavior and get healthy. Fortunately, a steady stream of individuals have listened to that voice and taken action by attending a 12-week class at Emerson that is designed to produce success.

Simply joining a gym is not the answer to the common condition known as the metabolic syndrome, whose risk factors include a large waistline, elevated triglycerides, low HDL (the “good” cholesterol), elevated blood pressure and blood sugar that is heading upwards. “People with three or more of these risk factors have the metabolic syndrome,” says Virginia Dow, RN, cardiac nurse. “Approximately 30 percent of the population has it. They are at much higher risk for having a heart attack.”

The name of Emerson’s class says it all: Exercise & Weight Loss Prevention Program for Those at Risk for Heart Disease or Type 2 Diabetes. It combines exercise, education and hands-on help from experienced staff. By saying good-bye to the metabolic syndrome, class participants automatically lower their risk for heart attack, stroke and developing diabetes.

“We cover all the elements,” says Ms. Dow, who also oversees Emerson’s cardiac rehab program. “Some of our attendees are anxious about exercising, but we make them feel comfortable. Our challenge is getting people here. So many people would benefit from this class.”

The class is run by Kathy Donahue, RN, BC, (pictured at right) along with an exercise physiologist, dietitian and social worker. Anjum Butte, MD, a cardiologist at Emerson, serves as medical director.

Everyone receives an individualized meal plan, says Julia Elliott, dietitian. “I try to lead attendees to adopting a nourishing diet and walking away from the standard meals of cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner,” she says. “We talk about portion control, so I put the serving size of food on a table, and we discuss how to create a balanced meal. You can eat well — real whole foods — without it being difficult.”

Once they begin eating a diet comprised of healthy foods, attendees often say they have more energy, which in turn helps with exercise. “I had a woman tell me her joint pain disappeared when she began eating healthy foods,” Ms. Elliott notes.

“Time to be a grownup”

Last fall, Amy Spadano was ready to improve her health. “I have high blood pressure and wanted to lose weight,” says the Nashua, New Hampshire, resident, who is 53. She couldn’t ignore her family history.

“My brother recently had a stroke, and my mother had diabetes. I decided it was time to be a grownup. I have three kids and three grandchildren, and I want to be a good role model for them. Shame on me if I didn’t give the class a try.”

Ms. Spadano, who works at the Westford Library, asked a friend to join her. “I thought it would motivate me,” she says. “At the first class, I realized what a comfortable environment it was. They make it fun for you.”

A typical class begins with a warm-up and measurements, including weigh-in and blood pressure, followed by an hour of exercise. “We were monitored during exercise,” she says. “Someone always took your heart rate.” After a cool-down period, the class continues with presentations by either Nicole Saia, the social worker, Molly Kim, MS, CEP, the exercise physiologist, or Ms. Elliott. For example, Ms. Saia leads support groups on body image, the emotional side of eating and offered coping tips.

“I remember the day Julia laid out food and talked about making choices,” Ms. Spadano recalls. “It was between a little bit of bread or as many vegetables as you wanted. She convinced us to try different things. Julia is awesome. She gave us the information we need to be successful, including the calories we should take in each day.” When the class ended, Ms. Spadano had lost 18 pounds, lots of inches, and felt great.

“All my clothes fit better now, I have more energy, and I feel more confident,” she says. The class helped her to forge new habits. “I used to walk Ruby, my puppy, for a half-hour every day. But when I took the class at Emerson, I realized that wasn’t enough exercise, so now I include more — a cardio workout, yoga or hand weights. And I discovered I love rowing, which provides a tummy workout. I weigh myself regularly and wear a Fitbit.”

Looking back, she says the experience was easier than she thought it would be. “I knew this stuff about diet and exercise, but the class provides you with the whole package — all the information and support you need. It just clicked.”

The class is about more than BMI

Most people who complete Exercise & Weight Loss Prevention Program for Those at Risk for Heart Disease or Type 2 Diabetes are successful, says Ms. Dow. “Everything they need is in one place — all the elements to attack the metabolic syndrome.

“The class doesn’t just focus on weight and body mass index. We measure body fat percentage and waist circumference,” she adds, noting that most attendees lose between a half-pound and 2 pounds per week during the class. “We focus on high blood pressure and insulin resistance; many people are pre-diabetic when they join the class.

“We acknowledge depression, because we know that people who eat unhealthy, processed foods and don’t exercise are vulnerable,” says Ms. Dow. “We often do mindfulness meditation with the group.”

Some attendees return for a maintenance class, which includes weekly exercise and half the lectures, if they have not met their health goals or feel they have momentum and wish to continue.

The final class includes a brief graduation ceremony. “Everyone receives a certificate, and we review the goals they presented at the first class, when we ask ‘what brought you here?’” says Ms. Elliott. “We remind everyone of their goals, ask if the class met their goals and discuss what helped most.”

“So often, when the class has ended, people say to us: ‘This is just what I needed,’” says Ms. Dow.

What is the metabolic syndrome?

The metabolic syndrome is not a disease, but rather a group of risk factors that should be avoided, because they increase one’s risk of developing heart disease, of having a heart attack, a stroke and developing diabetes. The risk of developing the metabolic syndrome increases with age.

  • A person has the metabolic syndrome if they have three of the following five risk factors:
  • Large waistline (more than 35 inches in women, 40 inches in men)
  • Elevated triglycerides (150 mg/dL or higher)
  • Low HDL — the “good” cholesterol (less than 50 mg/dL in women, 40 mg/dL in men)
  • Higher-than-normal blood pressure (one or both: 130 or higher for top number, 85 or higher for bottom number)
  • Elevated blood sugar (fasting blood sugar 100 mg/dL or higher)

The metabolic syndrome occurs from being overweight or obese, leading a sedentary lifestyle and possibly genetics. It can be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight — specifically avoiding excess fat around the waist — exercising at least 30 minutes each day and eating a healthy diet.

For more information or to register for the Exercise & Weight Loss Prevention Program for Those at Risk for Heart Disease or Type 2 Diabetes, please call 978-287-3732. There is a fee associated with attending the class; many individuals are able to apply their health plan’s weight loss reimbursement benefit.