For years, the wellness program at Open Door Family Medical Center featured a series of free, daily exercise classes in its Ossining and Port Chester studios to patients, many of whom were enrolled or had previously taken the center’s year-long certified National Diabetes Prevention Program (NDPP).
At least until the pandemic hit.
“We initially told participants that we would be closed from March 12 to 27 (2020),” said Leanna D’Agostino, wellness program coordinator and a certified fitness instructor.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
With in-person classes no longer considered safe because of COVID-19 and the attention of its wellness team primarily focused on an emergency food distribution program designed to meet the needs of the hundreds of homebound Open Door families suffering from food insecurity, the exercise studios went dark. The program, paid for by donations from the Open Door Foundation, reemerged 16 months later in July 2021 in the only way it could – with virtual classes.
The new program – which, like the in-person classes, is offered in English and Spanish – started slowly. Soon, however, according to D’Agostino, the virtual classes started filling up with familiar faces, many of whom had taken the in-person classes for years.
“Our patients were living through a pandemic, and getting them to refocus on making healthy lifestyle changes was hard,” she said. “We wanted them to know that they could still exercise to relieve stress instead of turning to unhealthy alternatives to cope.”
The staff faced a number of early challenges. Some of those who expressed interest in taking the classes were not computer savvy. Others lacked the bandwidth to connect. Still others shared a single Internet connection with their children, who needed it for school. Some struggled to exercise in tiny apartments, with little available space and the distraction of young kids running around. Wherever possible, the Open Door staff worked to ease the transition.
Even the instructors found they needed to make changes. Some, like D’Agostino, continued to teach her classes from the Ossining exercise studio, while others preferred to lead the Zoom exercises from home.
“In the beginning, I found it challenging to position myself and the computer to appropriately demonstrate the movements, while still trying to observe what the participants were doing,” said D’Agostino. “I remember saying, ‘Point your feet out,’ and those watching on Zoom would all stop what they were doing and say ‘what?’ ‘who?’… There was a learning curve.”
But pretty soon friends told friends, increasing the number of participants, and the novelty of a virtual exercise class eventually wore off. Furthermore, Open Door realized that while it had attracted only residents of Ossining and Port Chester to the nearby studios, it could now cast a wider net by reaching its patients from throughout the county and Brewster (where there is also an Open Door site).
“Our patients started to connect not as part of a health center, but as part of a community,” said Claudio Villarroel, Open Door’s Associate Director of Wellness Programs. “We would love to have people coming on-site, but can’t now. Yet, the technology has helped us get closer to our patients.”
Added D’Agostino, “People really encourage each other and have formed bonds. They look for each other on Zoom during the class and if they don’t see someone, they text them. It’s been very positive.”
Participants like Diana Zaldivar de Solares believe that the virtual classes – she takes circuit training on Mondays, kickboxing on Tuesdays and Pilates on Wednesdays – actually offer benefits over the in-person classes she had taken for five years (beginning with her enrollment in NDPP, which educates participants to reduce their risk of developing diabetes). While Open Door does offer pre-recorded online exercise videos on its website, Zaldivar de Solares prefers having an instructor she can interact with in real time.
“It was a little weird for me at first with my kids at home (she has daughters seven and four),” she said. “But it’s been a benefit for them too. They can also exercise.” She believes it is good for her children to see her exercising and practicing a healthy lifestyle.
She likes the continuity of working out with familiar instructors, which having moved her family to Orange County from Ossining in September, would not have been practical. Other participants like the fact they no longer have to travel, particularly during the cold winter.
Zaldivar de Solares and her family benefited by receiving nutrition counseling and education from Villarroel, who previously provided nutrition education at Open Door. Her older daughter participated in Nutrition Matters, a program that was ran by the Open Door Wellness Program at the schools in the surrounding communities.
“We were sad when they closed it up and doing virtual classes in a small space can be hard,” she said. “But it’s about getting healthier – eating right and exercising. It’s been a very stressful time and everything helps. I’ve seen what life is like for those with diabetes and I don’t want that for me or my kids.”
Open Door offers a variety of affordable wellness services to help patients work towards their goal of optimal health. These services, including the Diabetes Prevention program, Clinical Nutrition Counseling, and Group Exercise Programs, are sustained and funded through philanthropic support.