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Exercise Is Medicine program revamps for maximum impact

Want to lose weight, battle depression or manage chronic pain? Your doctor’s “prescription” may include a newly reimagined program at the Kirmayer Fitness Center called Exercise is Medicine (EIM).

Trainer and Leif on exercise equipment
Andrew Gai (left), facilities and intramural sports coordinator for the Kirmayer Fitness Center, shows Leif Terslin the proper rowing technique during a training session.

Want to lose weight, battle depression or manage chronic pain? Your doctor's "prescription" may include a newly reimagined program at the Kirmayer Fitness Center called Exercise is Medicine (EIM).

Corie Cutshall, MS, is manager of the center that's located on the University of Kansas Medical Center campus. She said the philosophy behind EIM is simple: to have health care providers prescribe exercise with (or instead of) other treatments.

"Exercise definitely is medicine. It could be a partner to whatever else doctors are prescribing, but for longevity, acute and chronic pain, and disease management, it really is a great tool," she said.

Achieving goals with help of certified trainers

The Exercise is Medicine program is now restructured along three main tracks:

  • Weight Management - With a focus on shedding pounds, this track will assist patients with both exercise and nutrition.
  • Mental Health - Exercise has been proven to alleviate symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety, so this track addresses exercise and mood.
  • Chronic Pain - Patients reporting chronic pain for at least six months will be given specific exercise to minimize their symptoms.

Trainers within the program are certified with the American College of Sports Medicine, and the Medical Fitness Association has certified the center as a medical fitness facility. Cutshall said these designations let physicians (and patients) know the facility is fully prepared to meet the goals of EIM prescriptions.

Kirmayer Fitness Center regular Leif Terslin exercises five to six times a week as part of the EIM program. He's awaiting a liver transplant and wanted to get into better shape before the extensive surgery.

Cirrhosis of the liver caused his tissues to swell to painful levels, especially in his arms and legs, and he had trouble with fatigue and falling asleep. Exercise helped all those problems, Terslin said.

"I'm just so much happier now," he said. "In my last visit to the nurse practitioner - she hadn't seen me for three months - she was amazed. She said, ‘You look like a different person.'"

Making healthy changes

His complete lifestyle change began in July 2018. After inpatient rehabilitation for alcohol use, he stopped drinking, improved his diet and started walking. On his own, he dropped from 270 pounds to 240, but after he enrolled in EIM, he lost another 45 pounds.

The routine of working out also helps him avoid his past vices.

"My life is not as exciting as it used to be," he joked. "I go to work, then I go to the gym, and I work out until I have just enough energy left to go home, make dinner and go to bed," Terslin said. "I used to go out to the bars every night. Now I joke that I still go out every night, but I'm lifting weights, not drinks."

Leif's physician is Jody Olson, M.D., associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine and a transplant hepatologist at The University of Kansas Health Systems. Olson said he encourages patients with liver problems to stay active.

"Exercise helps our transplant patients in several ways. Liver disease and liver failure result in significant debility, as well as significant muscle loss, and so it's one of our primary goals to maintain functional status in patients," he said. "Exercise helps our liver patients to establish and maintain this functional status."

Terslin's nurse practitioner, Ashley Goff, APRN, said she's definitely seen dramatic changes in Terslin.

"I personally saw improvements in his issues with edema. I also think he experienced a steady improvement in his overall energy levels and issues with fatigue. He also reported sleeping better after he started the program," she said.

According to Goff, many patients with liver disease have sleep problems. "For reasons we can't completely explain, patients do complain of poor sleep," she said. "Overall, I think it would be fair to say that there was an overall improvement in his mood and ability to cope with this new medical diagnosis."

Getting the 'prescription' for exercise

If you're interested in participating in the Exercise is Medicine program at Kirmayer:

  1. Make an appointment with your provider to discuss how exercise might affect your health. (To participate, your provider must be affiliated with The University of Kansas Health System.)
  2. If your provider feels exercise will be beneficial, have him/her fill out a Physician Referral Form and send it to Kirmayer staff.
  3. Purchase a membership for a set number of weeks or months (competitively priced to area gyms) and set up an appointment for a consultation.
  4. Develop a plan with your American College of Sports Medicine-certified trainer.
  5. Work on completing your goals. At the end of every eight weeks, your doctor will receive a progress report from Kirmayer staff.

Terslin said he's sharing his personal story because he wants more doctors to prescribe exercise in the future.

"I went into this not really sure if exercise is medicine. Now I know exercise is medicine," he said. "I think out of all the pills - air quotes around pills - that I take, this is the best one," he said. "It just makes me feel better."

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