Wellness in Action


Do you know how many steps you walked today? Participants in Volunteers in Medicine Clinic Hilton Head Island’s Wellness Program do — and chances are they’re on their way to meeting and exceeding their step goals, too.

Back in 2013, VIM got a grant from pharmaceutical company Pfizer to address health issues like heart disease and diabetes in women older than 35. And when the clinic screened its female patients in that demographic, every one of them was at risk.

“A very high percentage of patients had risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and hypertension,” said Julie Copp, the director of patient care at VIM. “And when you look at treatments for diabetes or hypertension, lifestyle is the first thing that affects health the most. So the Wellness Program was implemented to get people moving and get healthier.”

VIM Wellness2The Wellness Program teaches patients how to change their lifestyles to improve their health. Thanks to recent attention on the negative effects of sedentary lifestyles, program participants received Fitbits donated by the VIM board’s president. From there, the program has continued to grow and adapt to patients’ needs.

The program is free and open to all VIM patients. And because the focus is on holistic wellness and healthy lifestyle, not everyone is there to lose weight. The only cost to participants is a Fitbit, which they can get from VIM for $30 with batteries and accessories, or some other device that can track their steps. The goal is 10,000 steps a day, and participants come into the clinic on Thursdays or Fridays to log their steps for the week and get weighed.

No one likes the scale, but the program makes weigh-ins easier with incentives and friendly competition. For every 70,000 steps at check-in, participants get entered into a raffle. And for every two pounds lost, they get a $5 gift card. If they lose 5 percent of their body weight, they get a $25 gift card. Each month, the four people with the highest step counts get gift cards. And the clinic runs challenges throughout the year to keep participants motivated. Over the holidays, the contest was “Maintain, Don’t Gain,” to help people keep from splurging at the holiday buffet; the clinic’s “Biggest Loser” contest starts in February. To encourage people to get outside during warmer months, the clinic runs a “100 Days of Summer” contest. Three participants have crossed the 10,000-mile mark, which took several of them years to achieve, the patients received a $100 gift card.



But it’s not all about the steps. The Wellness Program offers Zumba classes twice a week, led by a program participant who loved Zumba so much that she got certified to teach it and now holds the VIM class as a volunteer. Zumba also introduced program coordinator Elizabeth Forges to the group. She went to a Zumba class with her friend and learned about the program. She started volunteering and was then hired as the coordinator.

VIM Wellness3Twice a week, the Wellness Program group meets at Jarvis Creek Park to walk the trail. These opportunities give participants the chance to exercise and meet other people in the program.

VIM also offers nutrition and cooking classes, giving participants practical skills to use when they’re shopping for and preparing food. Rather than focusing on dieting, the Wellness Program teaches lifestyle changes. It covers topics like serving sizes, how to read food labels, and healthier cooking techniques. The cooking classes, which are a partnership with the Lowcountry Food Bank, tend to focus on preparing healthier versions of the dishes participants like to cook, and then they get the ingredients to take home and recreate the healthier dish.

Because about 90 percent of the participants are Hispanic, and most of them are women, showing them how to prepare their cultural food has been very helpful, said Forges.

“I always tell them that eating better is not only about losing weight, but they can have a healthier husband and healthier kids,” Forges said. “As women, we can make those changes.”

The Wellness Program also puts a strong focus on mental health and wellbeing, with weekly support groups and a life-coaching program. Many women in the Hispanic community are isolated, and this gives them an outlet for taking care of themselves.

Starting this year, the program also has partnered with the Island Recreation Center to offer discounted access to the facility for 20 people, so they can use the walking track and equipment. The program will also start holding the Zumba classes there.

“The Wellness Program is part of the clinic’s goal to move people from episodic care to overall wellness and weight management,” said Dr. Raymond Cox, the executive director of VIM. “And the benefits go beyond weight loss.”

He said they’ve seen patients gain a greater sense of wellbeing, reduce their need for anxiety and depression medications, and find joy the great sense of camaraderie that unites them in their self-care missions.