Getting InShape: Physically and Mentally During a Pandemic

Clients Thrive in West Central's "InShape" Fitness Program

We’d all like to be in shape. Some of us are, some not so much. But, did you know, when it comes to community mental health centers, West Central Behavioral Health with offices in Claremont, Lebanon, and Newport, NH offers a program called “InShape” that really helps clients make strides toward living better lives?

West Central has health mentors who manage the InShape program. InShape is a a health promotion program for people with mental illness that strives to improve physical health and quality of life, reduce the risk of preventable diseases, and lengthen the life expectancy of individuals with severe mental illness. I’ve seen InShape participants gather for a baking class at King Arthur Baking Company in Norwich, VT (formerly King Arthur Flour) to learn about the foods they eat and how to bake heart-healthy whole wheat biscuits. People had a great time, many baking something for the first time in their lives!

But enough about InShape from me. Let’s hear directly from Mike Darrow, who’s a health mentor for West Central’s InShape program. Here’s what Mike had to say in a recent email to me:

The InShape program is a reflection of the broadminded, active culture at West Central Behavioral Health.  InShape is an acronym: Individualized Self-Help Plan for Empowerment.  This is an evidence based program that started in New Hampshire almost 20 years ago, when the director of a behavioral health clinic was attending yet another client’s funeral.  Individuals who have a severe mental illness pass away on average of 25-30 years earlier than those who do not have a mental illness.  The cause of death is usually not related to mental illness but rather complications from type 2 diabetes or cardio vascular disease.  The concept of the InShape program is to work to prevent those with mental illness from developing secondary physical side-effects. 

Community integration has been a cornerstone of modern-day behavioral health; the InShape program uses physical fitness as a means to improve client health, and develop ties to the community.  After going through a referral process, clients work with a Health Mentor.  I have been a Health Mentor at West Central Behavioral Health for the past eight years.  The InShape program helps clients realize positive changes in their lives.  Clients choose their own goals; the health mentor acts as a coach to give InShape members the tools to work towards their goals in a safe, productive manner. 

“InShape has inspired me to walk.  I feel better about myself, and it helps with stress.  Now I encourage others to walk, too. Without InShape I don’t think I would be walking everyday like I am now.” –InShape Member

It is amazing how well received the program has been not only by members of the InShape program, but throughout our community.  This program relies greatly on community partnerships from our local gyms such as: the CCBA (Carter Community Building Association), Anytime Fitness (West Lebanon), Real Steel Fitness (Claremont), and The Claremont Community Center. Other valuable community partnerships have been formed with King Arthur Baking Company (who offered a free baking class to InShape participants just prior to COVID-19) and the Coop Food Stores (who were planning on doing a cooking class series with InShape that’s been delayed due to COVID-19).

“I knew I could cook before…now I know I can bake” -InShape Member’s thoughts after attending a baking class at King Arthur Baking Company.

So how has a program that has community integration as one of its underlying tenets been coping during a pandemic where we are supposed to physically distance from one another?  From a health mentor’s perspective: incredibly well.  In an organic manner, the pandemic has created health conscious dialog that wasn’t there before.  It has challenged members of the InShape program to work towards their goals in a more independent manner, which is fundamental for long-term success.  For the handful of clients I do meet in the community, they’ve now learned what appropriate social distancing looks like, how to properly use PPE, and how to safely interact with members of our community during a pandemic. 

“Working with my health mentor keeps me motivated when I’m on my exercise bike and it gets tough.  I have been doing my physical therapy exercises with my health mentor, and believe I can get in better shape after years of side effects from medication.” -InShape Member

Because our clients’ health is paramount, I have been meeting with most InShape members via telephone. These telephone meetings have included, but aren’t limited to, nutritional consultation, “virtual walks” (where an InShape member and I walk separately but talk on the phone during session), and strength training primarily using isotonic/isometric strength training.  Isotonic/isometric strength training uses body weight for resistance, which is highly effective.

What does the future hold for the InShape program at West Central? We are already looking ahead to 2021 and are developing nutritional educational opportunities for InShape members. Fitbits we were able to purchase thanks to grant funding through the Coop Food Stores, are just beginning to be implemented with some InShape members. COVID-19 has been a challenge for everyone, but thanks to our dynamic team at West Central Behavioral Health and our amazing InShape members we have been able to continue making our community a better place with improved physical and mental health through the InShape program.

— Mike Darrow for InShape

I guess that about says it all. No need for me to add anything further other than to thank Mike and his InShape health mentor colleagues and clients for making the world a better place by getting in shape physically and mentally, and staying that way throughout this pandemic.

West Central Behavioral Health is the community mental health center serving the Upper Valley and Sullivan County since 1977. Its private, non-profit mission is to promote the health and quality of life of individuals, families and communities by providing treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders, while helping to reduce the stigma associated with these challenging conditions. Click Here to visit its website.