Fighting Obesity with Teamwork… and Zumba

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Dr. Nicole Alexander advises a patient at the POWER Obesity Group Visit program

Struggling with obesity, Marta Rodriguez used to dread stepping on the scale at her doctor’s office.

“I would scramble to empty my pockets first – take out keys, coins, anything to help reduce the weight,” she said in Spanish, with a laugh. “Now, I don’t have to do that anymore.”

The lively 61-year-old wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words “#1 Mom” has lost seven pounds since joining the POWER Obesity Group Visit program at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Campus in Willowbrook. And she’s just getting started.

“I’ve seen a patient drop 30 lbs. through this program, and her success motivates me,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “I know that the program works, that it’s not a lie, because she’s living proof.”

_MG_6935POWER stands for Prevent Obesity With Eating Right, but the program also includes a Zumba workout, cooking demonstrations, and lectures conducted every Monday, 1:30-3:30pm, in the conference room at the Interns and Residents Building Terrace. Currently, the program has about 15 patients per session, but it has the capacity to expand to 50 patients.

Dr. Theodore Friedman, lead physician at the MLK Outpatient Center’s Endocrinology Clinic, founded the program in 2013, concerned about high rates of obesity in the Second District, particularly in the vicinity of the medical campus.

“At least a third, if not half, of the people in this area have obesity,” he said. “They’re my patients and I want them to be as healthy as they can be. I think it’s a worthy cause.”

_MG_6967Obesity raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death. It’s particularly prevalent in the Second District, where there are too many fast food chains and too few grocery stores selling fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables.

Because simply telling individual patients to eat well and exercise wasn’t producing the results he wanted, Dr. Friedman decided to try “ putting patients in a room together so they can support each other and inspire each other.”

It worked. Over the last two years, several patients have experienced significant weight loss, including one who shed 80 lbs.

“When they lose weight, they’re transformed,” Dr. Friedman said. “I had this patient who had a walker, and she came with her husband all the time. He also had trouble walking. Each of them separately lost about 50 lbs. Now, she uses the walker much less.”

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Dr. Nicole Alexander, Dr. Theodore Friedman, Elizabeth Driscoll

During a recent session, 14 women and one man cheerfully broke into a sweat while dancing to the tune of Gloria Estefan’s Conga, using a Zumba workout video projected onto the conference room screen. Dr. Friedman danced along with them.

“I’m here to lose weight and feel great!” one patient announced to the class. Another patient parked her walker against the wall while working out. Whatever they may have lacked in coordination, they more than made up for with determination.

After Zumba, the patients listen to lectures from Dr. Friedman, family medicine and bariatric specialist Dr. Nicole Alexander, and dietician Elizabeth Driscoll.

“Obesity in general has become an epidemic, but especially in minorities,” Dr. Alexander said. “It’s a big problem and it’s almost not their fault because there aren’t a lot of healthy options near where they live so they default to fast food that’s high in calories.”_MG_7030

Dr. Alexander meets individually with patients, so she can give them practical advice that’s tailored for their specific needs, resources, and physical abilities. “If they’re on welfare, for example, we let them know that food stamps are accepted at farmer’s markets, that they can try to grow fruits and vegetables in their own backyards, that they should consider cooking more while avoiding sodas and other junk food.”

So far, 51-year-old Emma Guevara has lost 40 pounds through the program, and she wants to lose 50 pounds more. “My mom died of diabetes, and I don’t want to go through what she went through.”

“God bless them for motivating me,” she said of the program. “I’m very thankful.”


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