Hospital-affiliated gyms grow in popularity

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EASTON, Pa. (AP) - Nazareth resident Mary Wikris, a mother of five, originally joined a St. Luke’s University Health Network gym because her children loved its day care.

She’s since found that she loves the gym on Commerce Way in Hanover Township, Northampton County.

After the birth of her fifth child two years ago, Wikris said she wanted to lose 50 pounds. Last fall, the St. Luke’s staff started her on a low-glycemic-load diet and a metabolic-conditioning workout.

She’s now happy with her weight and says she has much more energy than she ever did when she spent up to an hour on cardio machines and “ate like a bird.”

Wikris is the prototypical person who joins gyms run by hospitals and health networks, officials say. Such gyms are generally more costly than some commercial gyms, but members value the connection with health care professionals, which is often included in membership fees.

St. Luke’s opened its first gym in 1996 and Hunterdon Healthcare System followed suit in 1998, but many other local health network gyms are newer or newly open to the public.

Lehigh Valley Health Network has two gyms that have been open to employees and patients since the late 2000s but the new gym the network is opening in Center City Allentown also will be open to the public.

“The emphasis there is trying to keep that community healthy,” said Brian Downs, a spokesman for the network.

A greater interest in community health is driving a lot of health networks to open public gyms, said Julie Kissinger, spokeswoman for The Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania. Community health is not only a policy goal but also helps with insurance reimbursement under the federal Affordable Care Act, which rewards improved health conditions and penalizes hospital re-admissions, Kissinger said.

“You can keep people healthier, you can manage chronic conditions, you can assure in some cases that people who are coming into the hospital aren’t being re-admitted,” she said. “It’s very much integrated into the principles of keeping your staff healthy and keeping your patients healthy and reaching out into your communities to ensure they won’t have to enter the most acute part of their health care systems.”

Hunterdon Healthcare System opened its Readington Township gym in 1998 and its Clinton Township facility in 2008. Hackettstown Regional Medical Center also has a gym open to the public next door to its hospital.

More than 5,000 people belong to Hunterdon Healthcare’s gyms and that’s at a cost of $67 a month in Readington and $77 a month in Clinton. Patients, employees, seniors and students get discounted rates.

Both gyms have pools, steam rooms and saunas and services such as nutrition counseling, physical therapy and personal training.

St. Luke’s also includes unlimited access to personal trainers as part of its $50 monthly membership fee. The health network’s three gyms also only hire trainers with bachelor’s degrees in exercise science.

That staff expertise is what separates health network gyms from commercial gyms, says John Graham, St. Luke’s director of sports and human performance.

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