Lakewood fitness experts fortify ‘warriors’ in the battle against MS

Lakewood fitness experts fortify ‘warriors’ in the battle against MS
Brenda McKay, Megan Weigel, Michael Elias, and Darrell McKay

Fitness expert Darrell McKay and his wife, Brenda, a registered nurse, want to help those who suffer from Multiple Sclerosis to become “Wellness Warriors” in their battle against the disease.

The couple, who own and operate Anytime Fitness in Lakewood have joined with Megan Weigel, a Jacksonville Beach registered nurse practitioner specializing in MS care, and Michael Elias, CEO and founder of Sustainable Development Solutions, to form MS Wellness Warriors, a nonprofit that provides a free comprehensive and customized exercise and nutrition program for MS patients in Jacksonville.

A disease that attacks the central nervous system, MS is an autoimmune condition that damages the insulating covers of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord causing physical, mental, and sometimes psychiatric problems. Specific symptoms are different for each patient and can include double vision, blindness in one eye, muscle weakness, trouble with coordination, numbness, unexplainable fatigue, memory loss, muscle spasms, and bowel and bladder issues, said Weigel.

“The thing that’s most common is the uncertainty. Patients are always wondering what am I going to wake up like tomorrow? That’s the part that is so difficult,” she said. “It’s lonely, because you are struggling, and it can be day-to-day to keep yourself mentally above water.”

Because no fitness program currently exists that includes both nutrition and exercise therapy especially designed with the MS patient in mind, the nonprofit’s founders wanted to formulate a program tailored to each MS warrior’s individual needs, while still providing a sense of camaraderie for them in a medically-safe environment. Assisting in the program are certified physical therapists, clinical trainers, and a registered nurse.

The goal of MS Wellness Warrior’s program is to eventually provide those with MS with a mental toolbox, so they can “self-manage” and cope with whatever symptoms develop, said Darrell.

“In the traditional health club world, there is a lot of false information and a lot of deception,” he said. “But in the medical world as far as us working with someone with this disease condition, we want to provide a program that is scientifically and medically researched and that is a delineator in terms of what we are going to teach and educate,” he said. “That sets us apart in a big way.”

Darrell McKay knows of what he speaks. He has served as executive director for five medically-based fitness centers, including the 60,000-square-foot facility at Brooks YMCA, and has provided executive oversight for outpatient cardiac rehabilitation. Brenda, meanwhile, formerly worked as a nurse at the Mayo Clinic.

An MS-certified nurse with a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree specializing in preventive healthcare, Weigel is also a registered yoga teacher practicing the Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga methodology. She is a founder of oMS Yoga, a 501(c)(3) organization that provides free yoga classes to people living with MS in Jacksonville and Philadelphia, Penn., and plans to include a yoga component in the MS Wellness Warrior program.

In total, the three-phase program covers a 15-month period, with the initial assessment and training phase spanning 12 weeks. Each warrior receives an individualized assessment to measure their strength, cardio, balance, flexibility, cognitive function, fall risk, susceptibility to depression, tissue structure, health history, functional movement, and nutritional standards. “By doing this we will be able to adjust all aspects of our program as needed for each warrior,” said Brenda.

Once the assessment portion of Phase 1 is finished, the program will revolve around five pillars – nutrition, cardio-vascular training, high-intensity interval training, strength training, and rest and recovery. Each warrior will have their individual intake benchmarks reviewed by the program’s medical director, executive training director, and a medical advisory committee so that the training module can be customized to their individual needs. Warriors will also be reassessed using the same initial metrics midway through the program, Brenda said.

Twice a week, clinical trainers will provide each participant with personal training modules. Group fitness, oMS yoga classes, and six nutritional workshops are included throughout the program.

“MS Wellness Warriors are fighters,” said Brenda. “If they are going to participate in this program they need to be committed. They can’t just come when they feel like it. If they sign up, they are agreeing to come 90 percent of the time or they can’t remain in the program.”

Her husband agreed. “We want people to be here because they want to be vital. They want to exercise so they can do as much as they can for as long as they can,” said Darrell.

“I would be stoked if our participants come back to us and said, ‘I feel like I’m not a victim to this disease anymore. No matter what my MS throws at me, I have a toolbox and I can pull out something to deal with this today,’” said Brenda.

At the end of 12 weeks, a graduation event with a keynote speaker will be held to showcase each warrior’s achievements. After graduation, warriors advance to a 12-month maintenance program where they will have 24/7 access to the Anytime Fitness gym. Quarterly team meetings with updates will be held every three months, and each warrior will update their status at the six-month and one-year mark so the medical oversight committee can make individual recommendations.

Thanks to Wrestling MS, a nonprofit partnering with the MS Wellness Warrior program, each warrior receives a bicycle, tricycle or stationary bike depending on their individual capabilities. They also have access to the Wrestling MS training and nutrition program and its “buddy” system, which matches them with world-class Olympic and nationally-recognized MS bike trainers. Monthly team rides are provided, and each warrior will have access to the team success page on the MS Wellness Warrior website.

“Our program doesn’t have a finish point,” said Weigel. “After 12 weeks they don’t leave the program. We’re still connected with these people. Our program is unique because it’s creating a new model for MS maintenance and recovery.”

Approximately 15 warriors have been accepted into the first class, which will start prior to year-end, and there is already a waiting list, said Elias. The nonprofit is in the process of applying to multiple grants to fully fund the program.

“We made a decision that we were not going to launch our program until we were fully funded, because once we start, we want to keep going,” Darrell said.

The founders are also hoping to partner with the National MS Society and Florida Blue, so they can disseminate their findings and information beyond the scope of Jacksonville.

“No one is doing what we’ve envisioned, to our knowledge,” said Elias.

“It is our hope for this to become a healthcare destination for people with MS,” said Weigel. Darrell McKay agreed. “We want to become known in the community as a place where physicians can send their MS patients and know they will be getting the right answers,” he said.

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By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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