KAREN MASERJIAN SHAN, FOR THE POUGHKEEPSIE JOURNAL
Her blood pressure and cholesterol levels have lowered and she’s built muscle in the last 12 weeks. It’s all thanks to the BetterU Makeover Challenge, a healthy lifestyle program sponsored by Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation and conducted by the Dutchess-Ulster American Heart Association.
“I’m donating clothes to the Grace Smith House,” Dao said, including new, still-tagged ones that were too small when she purchased them. Now they’re too big.
Even better is that through the challenge, her confidence is up.
“Now I don’t turn down anything,” Dao said.
As one of 13 women that participated in the sixth annual BetterU Challenge, Dao and her classmates worked to improve their heart health in the course of 12 weeks. Each received a free three-month membership at Gold’s Gym, including group workouts and a baseline medical evaluation from Health Quest Medical Practice, plus mentor support, nutritional coaching and heart-healthy seminars. They also blogged about their progress at www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/blog/betteru/
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, and stroke, the No. 5 killer. By making healthy lifestyle choices more than 80 percent of coronary events may be prevented.
During the American Heart Association’s Go Red luncheon Oct. 28, where the BetterU participants were celebrated for their accomplishments, Denise Doring VanBuren, vice president of public relations at Central Hudson, said the BetterU Challenge has again inspired and empowered to make positive changes in their health.
“We feel this program truly is making a meaningful difference in the lives of women, here in the Hudson River Valley,” VanBuren said, including the 60-plus women that have benefited from the program, to date.
In all, she said, eight of this year’s participants lowered their blood pressure, including one woman who was allowed to be taken off her blood pressure medication; seven lowered their cholesterol, including one by 40 points; three women lowered their blood sugar levels, helping avoid the onset of adult diabetes; and together they lost 198 pounds.
Keynote speaker for the celebratory luncheon, Suzie Carmack, who holds a doctorate in health and strategic communication and is a healthy living author, scholar and speaker, said caring for oneself takes a daily commitment, but not necessarily deprivation.
“We don’t have to punish ourselves to be happy,” she said. “We don’t have to be mad at ourselves in the times that we do trip and fall in our health behavior.”
At the same time, she said, it’s important for people to reposition how they eat, exercise and work for their health and ability to do good work for others.
“I’m a big fan of BetterU,” Carmack said. “I couldn’t be more proud of these women for taking the time to take care of themselves.”
Tina Vaitkus, 48, of Poughkeepsie, improved her heart health score and lost 43 pounds during the challenge, even though weight-loss wasn’t her aim.
“My goals were to feel good, to feel healthy and to be a role model for my family, and that is what has happened,” she said.
Her efforts also were noticed by a local radio station, where she now hosts a weekly show on getting healthy, including with guest speakers involved in fitness, nutrition and wellness.
“I went from zero exercise to exercising six days a week and I’m there, minimally an hour, sometimes two hours, every day,” Vaitkus said.
Also important was the support she got from past and present fellow BetterU participants during gym classes, her favorites, of which, include boxing, industrial strength and after burn.
“I just feel like, from this experience, so many other things blossomed,” she said.
Jennifer Paglia, 34, of Hyde Park, especially enjoyed the camaraderie she felt from her fellow BetterUs.
“We really supported each other,” she said. “Whenever one of us didn’t know if we could do it, everyone else helped each other go another step, so it’s been amazing that way.”
So, too, she said, have the trainers at Gold’s Gym been helpful, in particular, Vincent Dicesare.
“He was so motivational and so supportive,” Paglia said. “He even came on his days off to classes we were taking to show support.”
Now, she said, her diabetes is under control.
“I’m going to talk with my girlfriends about trying to get some of them to sign up for the next (BetterU Challenge),” she said.
Erin Cafarelli, 40, of Stanfordville, said she’s loved getting to know the other BetterU women and now feels like the gym is a friend.
“It’s been such a life-changer because I’m motivated now,” she said.
Her cholesterol has come down 10 points and her heart score rose three levels.
“I have more energy, I’m sleeping better – you make better food choices – it’s just been great,” she said.
BetterU alums, Linda Thomas of Wappingers and Rita McPeck of Poughkeepsie, were two of the program’s mentors for this year’s BetterU participants.
“We were there to motivate them and be there to answer questions,” said Thomas, who was voted by last year’s BetterU class, as the spirit award winner.
Early on, Dao, this year’s spirit award winner, called Thomas late one evening, worried about exercising with a knee brace on, the result of her recent knee-replacement surgery.
“She said, ‘Just show up,’ ” Dao said of Thomas. “Everyone (at the gym) worked with me — I had restrictions, but they didn’t blink twice.”
These days Dao is at the gym five to six days a week and has arranged for group hikes with her BetterU classmates along Ulster County’s Hudson Valley Rail Trail in Esopus.
“Now I don’t turn down anything,” she said.
McPeck, who has lost 60 pounds since participating in the program last year, regularly works out in 5:30 a.m. classes at Gold’s Gym and has run in four 5Ks, besting her time for each subsequent run. More than that, she’s lost count of how many people have told her that she’s inspired them to improve their health.
“It’s nice to see that I inspire people and they’re exercising more,” she said.
Karen Maserjian Shan is a freelance writer; firstname.lastname@example.org