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Healthcare News Special Coverage

Second Wind

By Mark Morris

Steve Conca

Steve Conca says he’s seen a post-pandemic uptick in people wanting to take charge of their health.

Editor’s Note:

These are exciting, challenging, and ever-changing times for healthcare and the businesses and individuals providing it. To better inform and educate its readers about the many issues, trends, and developments in the healthcare sector, BusinessWest will be introducing a new, monthly segment that will present content from its sister publication, Healthcare News (HCN) .

This new resource will be called “HCN Monthly Feature,” bringing news and information on the many health, wellness, and fitness issues and developments of today, from both regional and national sources. Each HCN Monthly Feature will have specific themes and points of emphasis — everything from health and fitness (this month) to behavioral health; from cancer care to a salute to the region’s nurses — and it will be made available online at both businesswest.com and healthcarenews.com, as well as via the daily e-newsletters BusinessWest Daily News and HCN News & Notes, making it readily available to subscribers and consumers in the Western Mass. region and beyond. 

For subscriptions, additional information, and to send us your news and story ideas, please visit BusinessWest  and HCN

Marina Lebo remembers what Healthtrax in East Longmeadow looked like during the pandemic — and is glad it looks a lot different now.

“The plastic barriers are down, and the equipment is all back where it was,” said Lebo, vice president of Operations at the club. “We have more cleaning supplies available, but that’s the only difference.”

Fortunately, that return to normal is manifesting in other ways as well — including an increase in activity.

That’s only natural; at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, fitness centers were forced to shut down. Three months later, they were allowed to reopen at 40% occupancy only after installing clear plastic barriers at the front desk, mandating masks for everyone, spacing out exercise machines, and providing lots more sanitizing wipes to clean the equipment after each use.

With Healthtrax membership back to about 70% of pre-pandemic levels, Lebo’s goal is to keep increasing everyone’s comfort level to encourage going to the club as a normal activity again.

Steve Conca, owner of Conca Sport and Fitness in West Springfield, described the last few years as a whirlwind. He’s grateful his business has survived — and even thrived — since the early days of the pandemic.

“We don’t have a huge membership base, probably around 150, and it’s a very tight-knit community where people support each other inside and outside the gym,” he said.

When everything shut down in the spring of 2020, Conca began meeting with clients outdoors and over Zoom. “Everyone stuck with us, which was great. We didn’t lose too many people once we got back into the swing of things.”

Outdoor gatherings and livestreams were options Ashley Brodeur also used to keep her business going during the height of the pandemic. The owner of Active Lifestyle Fitness in Agawam hosted a private group on Facebook Live to keep her members on a regular workout schedule. While she appreciated virtual classes as a short-term necessity, she said, nothing beats the in-person experience.

In fact, shortly after in-person sessions resumed, Brodeur noticed several members getting easily winded from doing the same workouts they were performing during the livestream sessions. “When I asked why, they admitted that they weren’t doing the entire workout at home.”

So everyone was glad to return, she went on. “There is an accountability in having to show up somewhere and having someone watch how you are exercising.”


Wake-up Call

Everyone who spoke with BusinessWest pointed out that the pandemic served as a wake-up call about the importance of good health. As their members return to fitness centers, all agree there’s a new emphasis on getting results.

Marina Lebo

Marina Lebo says the rise of flexible and hybrid work schedules has led to Healthtrax being busy at less traditional times.

“I think a lot of people’s minds shifted during the pandemic,” Brodeur said. “Instead of working out to quickly lose some weight, our typical member now seeks a higher quality of life and to avoid becoming an unhealthy person.”

Lebo noted that the most vulnerable people to getting COVID usually have issues with obesity or struggle with other health problems.

“There’s been a realization that, if you stay in shape, you will be better-prepared for all kinds of ailments, and you’ll be less likely to have symptoms over someone who isn’t as healthy.”

For the past year or so, Conca has seen a resurgence in his West Springfield facility due to people taking more initiative with their own health and wellness — especially older people or those who navigated the pandemic with heart disease, diabetes, weight issues, or other health factors, and now want to improve their outlook.

“They weren’t really paying attention to their fitness or health before,” he said. “These are folks who want to take a much closer look at their health.”

Most of Conca’s members are in their mid-40s through their 60s. “We have some folks in their 30s, but they’re not the majority,” he said. “It’s a nice mix of folks, and no one’s here for vanity reasons like getting ready for bikini season. They want to move better, feel better, take care of themselves. When they go on vacation, they want to be able to go on a hike without pain.”

The demand for more results-oriented workouts has meant growth in the personal training and small-group training programs at Healthtrax. Lebo said the small-group training appeals to people who like a dedicated workout at a scheduled time.

“If you’re a biker, golfer, tennis player, runner, obviously you can’t go as fast and hard and aggressive as you did in your 20s or 30s, but you can still go out and enjoy doing it, at maybe a little less intensity.”

“If you have a goal and you start to see results, you are more likely to stick with the training,” she said. “It’s far more effective than going to the gym for weeks, doing your own thing, and not seeing any noticeable results.”

To establish a starting point for fitness, Healthtrax uses a high-tech body-composition machine known as InBody 570. While the user stands on it barefoot and holds the handles, the machine provides a wealth of fitness information that helps a person understand what type of workout would benefit them most.

“For example, someone who is thin might learn they are not as fit as they thought, and the InBody might also reveal a heavy person has a good amount of muscle, so they can concentrate on exercises that burn fat,” Lebo said.

At Active Lifestyle Fitness, Brodeur offers what she calls a 6 Week Transformation Challenge, with an emphasis on strength, cardio health, and flexibility. She emphasized this is not a quick fix, but a results-oriented approach to a healthy and balanced body.

“We developed this program because people told me, ‘I need help. I don’t want to mess around with my health anymore’” she said. “It’s been successful because it centers around the basics of helping people properly move their body and build strength.”

Ashley Brodeur

Instead of just wanting to lose some weight, Ashley Brodeur says, today’s fitness crowd is looking to improve their quality of life.

An emphasis on long-term health comes with many rewards. Conca noted that, while everyone knows the definition of ‘lifespan,’ he talks with members about ‘healthspan’ — the number of years one spends without being hampered by chronic disease — and ‘playspan,’ the number of years one is able to continue to enjoy favorite activities.

“If you’re a biker, golfer, tennis player, runner, obviously you can’t go as fast and hard and aggressive as you did in your 20s or 30s, but you can still go out and enjoy doing it, at maybe a little less intensity.”

Understanding the value of that playspan, and of maintaining the ability to enjoy quality-of-life moments like getting on the floor to play with a grandchild and easily getting back up, puts a real-life emphasis on fitness goals, Conca said, which are more powerful than the numbers attached to weight-loss goals.

“When they come here, a lot of folks are not in a good place; they’re struggling, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he explained, adding that many people have tried different approaches but lacked proper accountability along the way.

“We really personalize it. I’ve been really blessed to help people and have a team around me who feel the same way. It’s exciting because we’re really helping people.”


Opportunity Knocks

Lebo has seen a huge change involving when people choose to access her club. In the past, the hours before and after work were consistently busy, while the club was practically a ghost town in the early afternoon. That’s no longer the case.

“We are busy at all different times during the day,” she said. “With more people working from home or on floating work schedules, they might come in after 9 a.m. or after 2 p.m.”

All-day activity has been a positive development because, in addition to seeing activity all day, members no longer experience those congested times waiting to use the more popular exercise equipment.

“It’s also good for our training classes because we can schedule throughout the day instead of trying to jam everyone in after work,” Lebo said.

Whether it’s through personal training sessions, small groups, open gym time, or an introductory, six-week program called Mastering Your Best Self, Conca emphasizes that fitness should not be stressful. In fact, when done properly, it should reduce other stressors in life.

“Everyone’s dealing with something, whether it’s physical stress, financial stress, or family situations, taking care of someone. Everyone’s got a lot of stuff on their plate. So we try not to make fitness another burden for them,” he said.

“We want people to recognize, they have an opportunity to take better care of themselves, and it’s going to make all those things they are dealing with much more manageable. Fitness can be fun, let’s not make it a punishment.”