After 77-year-old Shirley Weissman suffered a mild heart attack last year, she entered the world of chrome exercise machinery and weight equipment in search of cardiovascular fitness.
Normally, Lycra thongs and hard-driving rock music would have kept Mrs. Weissman from the benefits available at health clubs. On her doctor's recommendation, however, she began an exercise program at the fitness center run by Sinai Hospital. Now she comes to Sinai WellBridge Health and Fitness at least three times a week for a medically supervised workout that includes the treadmill, stationary bicycle and a machine to strengthen her upper body.
"I have more stamina and strength. I can walk up the stairs better," Weissman says. "I do get tired at times, but I keep it up. It's a wonderful outlet, and I look forward to it."
Sinai WellBridge Health and Fitness, the new 57,000-square-foot fitness palace at the Festival at Woodholme, is a partnership between Sinai Hospital and the WellBridge Co., which builds fitness centers. The new enterprise replaces Sinai Fitness, a more modest fitness center that opened in Owings Mills in 1984.
The facilities at Sinai WellBridge are impressive: A 25-yard, five-lane pool, a basketball court, one-tenth mile indoor track, two aerobics studios, banks of rigorous cardio-vascular machines and weight equipment, a separate pool for water therapy and a day-care center operated by a staff trained in early childhood education. But its major selling point is its medical expertise: This health club offers physician-planned and staff-supervised workouts, nutrition counseling and such behavioral programs as smoking cessation and weight loss. There are water movement programs for members with arthritis and fitness programs for pregnant women and new mothers. And there's even a sports medicine clinic on site.
Membership is $66 a month for individuals and $118 a month for couples, in addition to an initiation fee that varies depending on the package purchased. New members receive a fitness assessment and a specially designed exercise program monitored by Sinai WellBridge's exercise physiologists.
That kind of attention is common at hospital-based fitness centers, according to the Association of Hospital Health and Fitness. There are nearly 300 centers nationwide, most of which have opened in the last 10 years.
Baltimore has another hospital-based fitness center in the Bennett Institute of the New Children's Hospital on Greenspring Avenue. The Institute, primarily a sports medicine and rehabilitation clinic, opened in 1990 as an adjunct to the hospital, which specializes in orthopedics.
Many of the centers, like Sinai's, evolved from hospital cardiac rehabilitation programs. Located mostly in the Southeast and Midwest, they tend to attract people who have never belonged to health clubs or who have been sedentary for years. The average age of members: 44.
"These centers attract the aging baby boomers who aren't looking at themselves for 'body beautiful' but for body functionality," says Robin Schuette, director of the Association of Hospital Health and Fitness.
They see fitness as preventive medicine.
"People past 40 want to look better, but in a manner that is safe," says Jeffrey Quartner, medical director at Sinai WellBridge and chief of cardiology at Sinai Hospital.
"They want to be certain that exercise is not going to aggravate something like a joint problem or any pre-existing medical condition. Medical supervision includes knowing members' physical risks and creating a program that will still accomplish their goals."
Facing a family history of heart problems, 53-year-old Stan Rudick is religious about his workouts. He uses the treadmill for 30 minutes -- "my knees are the weakest part of my body" -- then moves confidently through the jungle of weight machines at the new Pikesville facility.
"If I don't socialize much -- which is also part of my routine -- I'll spend two hours at a time here," he says. "You walk out feeling so darn good, they call it the workout high."
Rudick belongs to a growing number of health-conscious Americans who are joining fitness centers because they promise medical supervision rather than "buns of steel."
"You're not there for the mirrors and neon lights," Rudick says. "You're there to get healthy, feel good about yourself. If you want to have your blood pressure taken when you come in the door, or have your pulse reviewed on the treadmill, it's automatic."
In addition, these centers provide a new exercise outlet for people with chronic medical problems. Sinai WellBridge, for instance, has fitness programs for members with heart disease, lung disease, arthritis, diabetes and Parkinson's Disease. A physician is on call at all times and, during normal business hours, members can drop by the sports medicine center for treatment of most sports-related injuries.
Wellness, not illness