Our specialty is theme-based web and mobile well-being programs with engaging participant experiences and rich content — campaigns that are challenging, social, fun, and grounded in health behavior change science. It’s all we do… for more than 25 years.
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By Dean Witherspoon
HES started in my attic in 1992. But the seed was planted a few years earlier by Martha, a 4’ 11” 30-something woman I knew only in passing at my Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas job as fitness manager.
Martha came up to thank me during our wrap-up celebration for the Presidential Fitness Award program. “You’re welcome,” I replied. “How did it work for you?” Her eyes immediately went misty and she proceeded to tell me how she never thought she would feel this good again. While I could tell the 100 or so folks at the event were clearly pleased with what they had accomplished and many had shared encouraging successes along the way, Martha’s story was different.
Diagnosed with arthritis in her teens, she’d been getting progressively more limited in everyday activities while battling increasing inflammation and pain. She had joined our center just a year earlier. While the water aerobics class Martha attended on Tuesdays and Thursdays was a brief respite from her constant affliction, it hadn’t helped her get better, but merely slowed the march of the insidious disease.
Then Linda, a friend she’d shared a ride with to our facility, asked Martha if she wanted to join her and a couple of others in the new fitness challenge. She initially declined, saying there was no way she could keep up with Linda’s non-arthritic friends. But after much persistence and assurance that they weren’t out to win, but to support each other in doing more, Martha’s commuter buddy convinced her to make the commitment.
“I had no idea how I was going to make it” Martha explained. “I couldn’t even walk around the track twice without needing to take a break.” (The center has an indoor track that’s 14 laps to a mile.) But after 3 months of consistent exercise, where she pushed herself to do a little more each day, Martha was not only walking 35-40 minutes a day, 5 days a week, she was strength training twice a week. “If you had told me back in January that I could walk over 2 miles without stopping and could lift 15-pound dumbbells 20 times, I would have laughed at you.”
“My friends meant everything to me…”
Although the program didn’t have a formal team competition, the 4 women decided to participate as a team. They met weekly to outline how many miles they would walk or jog and how many total exercise minutes they would accumulate.
They exercised together at least once a week and kept a team progress chart. They called each other when someone missed a scheduled exercise day. And they had fun.
My new friends didn’t cut me any slack because of my condition. It was just assumed that we would all contribute in equal amounts. I’ll be honest — it scared me at first. This was more exercise than I had done since I was a little girl. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I let my friends down?
As Martha continued to take me along her 3-month journey she shared not just the thrill of achieving something physically that she never thought she could do, but also her mental and emotional transformation. “I went from the idea of trying to cope with my illness to conquering it. About 2 months into the challenge, it suddenly hit me that I was in control, not my arthritis.” This is the point where my eyes got a little watery, too. “Just 3 months ago I honestly thought that for the rest of my life my disease would only get worse…”
In that moment, early April 1986, Martha’s story changed my outlook on wellness and behavior change (and ultimately led to founding Health Enhancement Systems 8 years later). I had been trained in exercise physiology — where everyone was supposed to go through a fitness test, get an “exercise prescription,” and consult their doctor if they had been sedentary. The prevailing idea was if people simply knew what to do and that it was good for them, they would do it.
Martha changed all that for me. She showed me that overcoming big health challenges is about people… not heart rates, or METS, or exercise prescriptions. She showed me the strength of friends working together to achieve something greater than they could do alone. She showed me that even when the odds are stacked against you, a person’s unwillingness to let their friends down can overcome not only inertia, but physical pain. She showed me my life’s work.