Looking to shape up and slim down—and improve your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers too? Frank Feraco was right there with you. But rather than calling a personal trainer, the partner at a private equity firm turned to the Program for Personalized Health and Prevention at the University of Chicago Medical Center. There he spent a day getting a rigorous evaluation from a multidisciplinary team of experts—and a comprehensive eating, exercise, and health plan. When his lead doctor, Ari Levy, asked Feraco to identify his main objective, he replied, “Can you keep me around for another 30 years?”
That was four years ago—and it turns out that Feraco, 64, was on the leading edge of a trend. Personalized health and fitness programs are popping up around Chicago and the nation. The idea: The more tailored the approach to you and your needs, the better your chance of dropping pounds and improving your health. “We determine your strengths and weaknesses and help you set reasonable goals,” says Jessica Bartfield, an internist associated with one such program at the Gottlieb Center for Fitness in Melrose Park.
While details vary depending on the organization offering the program, you will generally be evaluated and guided by a team that may include a doctor, a nutritionist, an exercise guru, and even a psychologist. And you typically get some ongoing follow-up over the course of several weeks or months, though the frequency and method differ.
Some of these programs are relatively new, so the information about their effectiveness is largely anecdotal. But experts say they make a lot of sense. “People’s heart rate and blood pressure respond differently to exercise. Why would we think that by giving everybody the same thing, they would respond the same way?” asks the exercise physiologist Kim Rostello, who developed the program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Levy concurs: “Think of exercise as a medication that you can underdose, overdose, or find the [optimum] therapeutic dose.”
The biggest drawback to this approach is the cost: up to $3,500 a year (though that can also be one heck of a motivator). The hefty price tag may be one reason that the upper-end programs tend to attract people in or past middle age, folks who have larger health concerns than just looking good in next summer’s swimsuit. But Levy has noticed an increase in patients in their late 20s and early 30s. “Health is a higher priority for them than for an earlier generation,” he explains.
Before you sign on to one of these programs, look into some smart ways to reduce the damage to your wallet. For example, the fee you pay may include a complete physical and lab tests. Check to see if your health insurer will cover any of those costs. Some insurance policies cover behavior modification, so see if the program you choose qualifies (you may increase your odds if you get your primary care doctor to prescribe wellness coaching or personal training). Your employer may pick up part of the tab; call your human resources department to find out. Finally, if you have an employer-provided flexible spending account that lets you pay health expenses with pretax dollars, you will likely be able to tap into it for the bill.
Count Frank Feraco among the believers. Following his specially prepared plan for diet, medication, and workouts (which included an early-morning swim), he shed 12 pounds, lowered his cholesterol to 124 (from 190), and saw his blood pressure drop to 120/70 (from 170/90). “It was one of the best decisions I made in my life,” he says. Bonus: His health insurer picked up about 70 percent of the costs.
Here are four programs with a tie-in to a top local teaching hospital. (Your primary care doctor may have additional recommendations.) They represent a range of services, costs, and locations.
Medical Weight Loss Program, Gottlieb Center for Fitness
WHERE Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park (part of the Loyola University Health System)
WHAT YOU GET Five consultations with a bariatric doctor (who performs a full physical); seven with a dietician; 12 with an exercise physiologist; and three with a psychologist. Included in your fee: supervised workouts at the center’s 55,000-square-foot gym, which has two pools, an indoor track, and a basketball court.
COST $2,500 for 12 weeks. After that, you can continue working with a personal trainer for $52 an hour or $480 for ten sessions.
BEST FOR Health-conscious people in the western suburbs who are also looking for the amenities of a health club
MORE INFO 708-450-5796 or gottliebfitness.org
Healthy Weight Program, Northwestern Comprehensive Center on Obesity
WHERE Northwestern Memorial Hospital on the Near North Side
WHAT YOU GET Access to a multidisciplinary team (a doctor, dietician, psychologist, and diabetes expert) that creates a customized plan combining diet, exercise, and behavior modification that is especially geared toward people struggling with obesity
COST Depends on the specialists you see, the number of visits, and your insurance coverage; call for details.
BEST FOR People whose body mass index exceeds 30
MORE INFO 312-695-2300 or ncco.northwestern.edu
Program for Personalized Health and Prevention, University of Chicago Medical Center
WHERE Hyde Park and Near North Side
WHAT YOU GET A comprehensive daylong physical and a battery of tests from a doctor, dietician, nurse, and physiologist, after which you get a personalized health, diet, and workout plan. Team members monitor your progress (good or bad) and address questions as they arise. “Each patient leaves with my cell phone number and e-mail address,” says Levy.
BEST FOR Busy executives (the program was designed for them)
MORE INFO 773-834-9000 or uchospitals.edu/specialties/exec-health
Human Performance Lab University of Illinois at Chicago
WHERE Near West Side
WHAT YOU GET A variety of tests, doctor input (as needed), and fitness training sessions, all at pay-as-you-go rates, so that you get charged only for the services that you choose.
COST Ten different tests—which include workout evaluation, fitness assessment, metabolic rate analysis, and exercise prescripiton—range from $20 to $160. Fitness training is $30 to $40 an hour. Discount for UIC students
BEST FOR People on a budget who want to buy their fitness care à la carte
MORE INFO 312-413-5266 or uic.edu/depts/recreation/hpl
Over 65? Free Weight Loss Help May Be at Hand
Late last year, Medicare—the health insurance plan that kicks in when you turn 65—announced that it was adding coverage for preventive services to reduce obesity. Among the benefits: free weight screening, dietary counseling, and weekly face-to-face behavioral sessions for one month, followed by sessions every other week for an additional five months. Obese patients who manage to lose at least 6.6 pounds during the first six months qualify for another half year of once-a-month counseling. The catch: To qualify, you must have a body mass index of 30 or more (to check yours, go to nhlbisupport.com/bmi), and obesity medications are not covered. For more information, visit the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at cms.gov.