McDowell County: Community Health Center Takes Extra Step to Keep West Virginia Patients Healthy and Active

October 19, 2011

West Virginia has one of the highest obesity rates in the country and McDowell County is no exception, where more than a third of adults are obese. Here in this Appalachian coal-mining enclave in the southernmost tip of the state, a local community health center called the Tug River Health Association took an unusual step to combat this problem by offering its patients gym memberships.

In 2006, the community health center opened its own Tug River Total Fitness Center, where gym members can take a fitness class; use the exercise equipment; get nutrition advice; or workout with a personal trainer—all for as little as $12 a month, and even less for those with health insurance.

With a shortage of specialty health care providers in this rural area, Tug River Total Fitness Center organized tele-health visits for a registered dietitian to provide nutrition advice and help members identify ways to eat a healthy diet on a budget. McDowell County residents rely heavily on food stamps and free school meals, so typically high-priced healthy foods are often out of reach. Access to fresh fruit and vegetables is also limited, with Walmart and mini-marts the only places to purchase food.

To get residents into the fitness center, it had to be affordable. Since local government is the county’s largest employer, the Tug River Health Association reached out to the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), which agreed to pay for its members who use the fitness center to lose weight. Through a partnership with Silver Sneakers, the Medicare fitness program, seniors are also able to use the gym to stay in shape and relieve arthritis pain for no charge. To get more kids into the center, the Tug River Health Association is soliciting corporate donations and grant opportunities to purchase sneakers for those who can’t afford them.

The Tug River Health Association also encourages residents to participate in outdoor physical activity, urging them to take advantage of new bike paths created by the local Chamber of Commerce and organizing an annual 5k run sponsored by local businesses.

Coal mining was a big industry in McDowell County, but since its decline the county has faced severe economic depression, leading to high unemployment, a troubled school system and families struggling to make ends meet. In 2011, McDowell County ranked last in the County Health Rankings for West Virginia. Faced with these daunting challenges, the Tug River Health Association collaborates with schools, universities and other local organizations such as the county’s family resource network, Families, Agencies, Children Enhancing Services (FACES), to promote and facilitate healthy lifestyles.

As it considers new ways to encourage residents to lead healthier lives, the Tug River Health Association turns to the County Health Rankings to help identify the county’s most pressing health problems and guide it in setting priorities for what programs to offer. Next on the list: helping young mothers quit smoking and improve their nutrition to counter McDowell County’s high rate of low birth weight babies. The Tug River Health Association also has plans to tackle the county’s high teen pregnancy rate—a key contributor to high school dropout—and will begin providing high school students with family planning in its school-based health center this fall, at the request of the local school board.

Photo by, Wikimedia Creative Commons