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Medical Fitness Centers Grow in Popularity

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After Howard Graff had bypass surgery 11 years ago, he needed a place where he could exercise without having a heart attack.

He wanted to work out under the watchful eye of a doctor or nurse. So the 62-year-old man from Skokie, Ill., joined a Chicago medical fitness center with health professionals _ not just aerobics instructors _ on staff.

``When someone comes out of surgery, you feel very alone. You were on the brink of going to the other side,'' Graff said. ``I went through an enormous amount of mental stress and the center provided me with moral support.''

He pays $60 a month for his membership at Galter LifeCenter, which offers guidance on nutrition and other healthy habits, along with the exercise.

The rising popularity of medical fitness centers is in line with the growth of a wellness culture, said Cary Wing with the Virginia-based Medical Fitness Association.

``The consumer is becoming much more savvy,'' Wing said. ``They're asking questions whether they attend a commercial club or health center.''

There were more than 700 medical fitness centers in the United States, Canada and Japan this year, compared with 550 reported in 2000, Wing said. The first medical fitness centers opened in the late 1970s.

In Lincoln, Neb., Madonna ProActive Health and Fitness, a nonprofit medical fitness center under construction, will include machine and free weights, a lap pool, therapy pool, whirlpool, exercise rooms, running track, classrooms and day spa services. Doctors, nurses, sports psychologists, dietitians and fitness trainers will be on hand to supervise members.

The center is geared toward people between the ages of 35 and 65 because they are at higher risk of developing health problems, said Lori Warner, a spokeswoman for Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.

``The goal is to try to help people live more complete lives,'' Warner said. ``We're not just reacting after someone is hurt or sick, but to help prevent that.''

The main difference between regular gyms and medical fitness centers is having doctors and nurses on hand to advise and oversee clients with health problems. It is medical professionals who help set exercise goals, Warner said.

Madonna ProActive is also expected to house outpatient rehabilitation therapy and offer services for people who don't have medical problems but simply want to stay fit.

Graff's cardiac problems finally forced him to quit his job as a consultant three years ago. But he remains comforted knowing his continuing workouts are under the domain of doctors and nurses.

``The peace of mind knowing there is skilled personnel to ... advise me and to guide me and protect me is priceless,'' he said.

Graff said he has become a walking advertisement for Galter LifeCenter, especially after a cardiac episode during his exercise there.

A fitness trainer stopped him from his workout routine because he saw Graff was having chest pain. A doctor at the center immediately examined Graff and performed several cardiac tests.

``I thought it would go away and it didn't,'' he said. ``There are times when I've had chest pain and had there not been trained personnel there to take me into an emergency room, I might not be here today.''
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