The UHealth Fitness and Wellness Center: Transforming Lives

At 4:45 a.m., the sun isn’t up yet. Nonetheless, when Michael Montero, first-shift receptionist, and Miguel Figueroa, first-shift wellness instructor, arrive each weekday morning to open the recently renamed UHealth Fitness and Wellness Center, located on the 9th floor of the Clinical Research Building, the same group of guys is already waiting to get in and get started. They come to pump iron, they have been doing it together for years, and this is the most treasured time of their day.

Strength and Stretching
One of them, Leander Horton, Supervisor of Animal Husbandry in the Division of Veterinary Resources, has been a member since the Center opened in October 2006. Now 40, he’s no stranger to exercise, but he says the classes offered by the Center changed his whole approach to fitness and health.

“I was always a weight guy, but I took a few classes that taught me the importance of stretching and cardiovascular exercise,” he said. “Then I incorporated what I learned into my workout. I went from being one big mass of muscle to having a more sculpted look. More important, though, I’m much healthier.”

The early-morning crew includes two additional medical campus employees — Eros Llorente, also 40, a patient access representative in the Department of Medicine, and Juan Mesa, 52, a network analyst at Jackson Memorial Hospital. The others — Mesa’s son-in-law, Josh Aberman, 31, an executive at nearby Lehman Pipe & Plumbing Supply, and Timothy Soler, 38, an aircraft mechanic at Opa-Locka Airport — are community members.

All of them attest to the physical and mental benefits of getting their day off to an energetic start, but they also praise the Center’s convenient location, expert staff and top-notch equipment — even its cleanliness and towel service. They also note how quiet and peaceful the Center is at that time of day.

Class Acts
But they are far from alone. The Center opens at 5, and group classes begin half an hour later, at 5:30. Montero says anywhere from 70 to more than 100 members come through the doors every morning before 7. That number will swell to 450 or more by the time the Center closes at 9 p.m. most weeknights (7 p.m. on Friday; Saturday hours are 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Early-morning classes range from 75 to 120 minutes, and the offerings include yoga, cross training and cycling. They also attract their own distinctive group of regulars.

Anne (“just call me Wonder Woman”) Auguste, 55, is one of the Center’s best-known members. Like Horton, she has belonged to the Center since the day it opened, but she also stands out because she works out twice — early morning and lunchtime — every Monday through Thursday. Those are the days she is on duty at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Florida Cancer Data System, where she is Senior Central Cancer Registry Specialist.

“I know every member who comes in and every instructor,” Auguste said. “As for classes, I like to mix it up — kickboxing, yoga, body sculpting, cycling. It’s good to try different activities and different instructors; that’s how you see results. I look better now than I did 20 or 30 years ago, and I feel like I’m a different person than I was then.”

Carol Karp, M.D., professor of ophthalmology at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, is another early-morning regular. An athlete since high school, she says exercise is an important part of her life.

“I find it relaxing,” Karp, 50, said. “It’s the only time I have for myself. I use it for fitness, for stress management, for friendship and camaraderie, for maintaining balance in my life and for pure fun.”

Karp’s brand of fun extended to the morning of her 50th birthday, when instructor Sandra Lee conducted a class in which everyone had to do 50 of each exercise in Karp’s honor.

“She knows I like a hard workout, so that was her gift to me,” said Karp.

Personal Attention
In addition to solo workouts and group classes, the Center also offers personal training with instructors like Figueroa.

“About 80 percent of the early people are UM or Jackson employees,” he said. “For those who work on campus, it doesn’t get any more convenient than this. I have clients who come in at 5:30, and I usually work with three or four clients until 8:30 or 9.Three of my regulars are doctors, another is a travel agent, and another is a flight attendant. I do my best to adapt to their changing work and travel schedules. I like to think that there is something here for everyone.”

Making a Commitment
“The nice thing about a morning workout is that nobody can steal it from you, and it energizes you for the day,” said Norman C. Parsons, Jr., Executive Director of the Center and its counterpart, the Patti and Allan Herbert Wellness Center on the Coral Gables campus. Still, he recognizes that busy members find time for themselves when they can, which is why the Center is also open well into the evening. Pointing out the window down at the cars stalled on the Dolphin Expressway, he said, “At night, instead of sitting out on that clogged highway, you can come in here and work out for an hour. By the time you take a shower and leave, the highway is clear.”

Parking in the CRB garage is free before 9 a.m. and after 4 p.m., making pre- or post-workday workouts even easier. But Parsons is promoting more than a buff body and free parking; he’s really pushing a commitment to a lifestyle.

“Instead of selling the treadmill, I’d rather sell a reason and a desire to get on the treadmill,” he said. “It’s up to us to be responsible enough to ourselves and our families to find the time to take care of ourselves. Not everyone has a schedule that allows them to come in every day, but even twice a week gives you real benefits. For quality and longevity of life, I want to see people get off the medication, take off the weight, reduce the stress and sleep better at night. All of those things can be accomplished by taking advantage of what we have to offer.”

Something for Everyone
What the Center has to offer is plenty of everything. At 60,000 square feet, split on two levels, it’s one of the most spacious fitness facilities in Miami, said Catherine Bernath, Director of Business Operations. She ticks off all that is contained in that space: a 15,000-square-foot fitness floor, with more than 100 pieces of state-of-the-art Life Fitness cardio and strength equipment; four group fitness instructional classrooms, including a dedicated studio cycling room, offering more than 75 classes a week; fully equipped locker rooms, with saunas, steam rooms and whirlpools; a therapy pool for aquatic programs; and a lab designed for fitness assessments conducted by Certified Wellness Instructors.

For the healthy who get hungry, Pasha’s Restaurant, which serves fresh Mediterranean cuisine, is open daily next to the entrance to the Center. Membership is open to the public, as well as to UM faculty, staff and students, at prices Bernath calls “competitive” with those of similar clubs in Miami. In addition, the center does not charge enrollment fees or require lengthy contracts.

The Lunch Crunch
Midday draws the Center’s biggest crowds, “but it’s never so busy that there aren’t enough machines to use,” said Tania Guardia, 32, a clinical research coordinator in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and another of the Center’s original members. With her two-year-old son, Romano, at home, lunchtime is her only opportunity to work out, and exercise is something that has to be fit in. She also has the opportunity to take a much greater number and variety of group classes than are offered earlier in the day.

“I try to go at least three times a week,” said Guardia. “I’m a loner, and I do a little of everything — spinning, yoga, my own thing on the treadmills; I also do weights. I never do the same thing, so I’m always switching it around. Overall, I have more energy when I work out. It also helps keep me in shape and de-stressed.”

Doctor’s Orders
Guardia’s approach to eliminating stress is an important mental health add-on to the physical benefits offered by the Center. For many members, however, their presence on the gym floor has serious medical origins. One of them is Isidoro “Izzy” Armenteros, 65, a computer specialist in the Department of Medicine, who has been a member for a little more than a year.

“I had open heart surgery in November 2012,” he said. “Afterwards, at the encouragement of my cardiologist, I joined the Center. I come in twice a week and walk on the treadmill, ride one of the exercycles and then work out with weights. It has made a huge difference in my life and in my overall health.”

In Mary Jackson’s case, working out is preventive therapy — an effort to maintain an active lifestyle while dealing with a cartilage tear and arthritis in her left hip. The wife of Miller School pulmonologist Robert Jackson, M.D., professor of medicine and Associate Chief of Staff for Research at the Miami Veterans Affairs Hospital System — a regular at the Center’s yoga classes — Mary, 55, has a busy volunteer schedule at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and the Miami-Dade Extension Service. Behind-the-scenes teamwork between her physical therapist, Kevin Mills, D.P.T., PT, and her personal trainer, Mark Howell, the Center’s Manager of Fitness Operations, is made easy by the fact that they work on the same floor.

“They are wonderful,” she said. “They give me exercises that won’t aggravate my injury and will strengthen the supporting areas. Everyone is on the same page about the best program for my needs, and I’m making real progress.”

“All of the exercises that Mark and I have developed for Mary are designed to avoid positions that cause impingement in the hip and make those bones rub together,” said Mills. “We want to see her make a successful transition from physical therapy to the gym and go on with her life.”

“What’s great about physical therapy patients referred to us is that they are already in the building,” said Howell. “They don’t have to go somewhere else. We can work with therapists like Kevin and even incorporate some of the same exercises he has given them into our own routines. We also occasionally notice members who seem to be experiencing pain with certain exercises and refer them to physical therapy. It’s easy when it’s right down the hall.”

This referral relationship was exactly what Parsons and Tony Musto, Ph.D., Director of Fitness Programs, had in mind when the Center was renamed and rebranded, and a new emphasis was placed on medically based programs.

“We want to capitalize on the UHealth brand to bring patients into the facility,” said Parsons. “We’re meeting with the directors of the various medical centers about referring their patients to us so we can help them have a better quality of life. To meet that goal we just hired two exercise physiologists — Raeah Braunschweiger and Brittany Dixson.”

The first of the medically based programs — the Supervised Exercise Program, which requires a physician’s referral and the presence of specific risk factors — was introduced this summer, with more programs tailored to specific, chronic health conditions under development.

“A lot of people don’t know where to go or what to do when their doctor tells them they need to exercise,” Musto said. “They leave the office, and they’re in limbo.

“We want to correct that by making this a gateway program the doctor can send them to. The program is designed to help individuals improve their health and cardiovascular fitness, and provide them with the necessary tools to make the routine part of their lifestyle.”

Winding Down
Members who work out at the end of the day start arriving at 4 p.m., when the evening classes begin. Most are looking to shrug off stress and regain their lost energy. Lourdes Jimenez, 53, Behavioral Health Social Work Supervisor at Jackson Memorial Hospital, comes in four to five times a week.

“My goal is to get fit,” she said. “I do a combo of cardio and machines, and I take spinning and toning classes. The trainers are very helpful — especially Mark Howell, who always has a smile on his face and is always willing to teach me how to use the machines properly.

“Daily exercise is important to me, because it’s my coping strategy to decrease stress. Since I’m a cancer survivor, I understand the importance of exercise and good nutrition.”

Becky Houchen-Bemis, 66, also comes to the center to shed stress. A school psychologist with the Miami-Dade County public school system, she works with children who are failing, often due to some form of mental illness.

“I’m better able to do my own work when I know I’m going to get a good workout,” she said. “It makes you stronger and more able to concentrate. You also are working out with people who are like-minded. It’s what has helped me get through all these years as a school psychologist. When you go in there, you just leave it all behind.”

It’s dark again when second-shift receptionist Lisa Nuccio finally locks up the Center at 9 p.m. Somewhere outside, a group of early-morning fitness buffs are already setting their alarms.

For more information about the UHealth Fitness and Wellness Center, call 305-243-7662 or visit For more information about the Supervised Exercise Programs, call 305-243-7802 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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