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VA Hospital Pushes for Greater Vet Participation in Healthy Living Programs

Peter Biello
The VA Hospital in White River Junction, Vt.

VA Hospitals across the country are beefing up their preventative medicine programs. At the VA hospital in White River Junction, Vermont, a variety of programs open to New Hampshire and Vermont veterans are tackling health problems like obesity, tobacco use, and stress. Some of these programs at VAs across New England are still underutilized.

In a small room at the ground floor of the VA hospital in White River Junction, a handful of veterans sit around a table and talk with a dietitian about a battle they all fight: a battle against body fat.

Here the vets gather every other week to discuss their weight loss goals and progress.

One of them is Leo. He’s a veteran from Newport, New Hampshire, and he’s been coming to these sessions since June. He’s 54, 5'8", has diabetes, and weighs 267 lbs. He’d rather be around 200 lbs. He didn’t want NHPR to use his last name.

Years back, he served in the Navy, but he gained too much weight to meet the Navy’s fitness standards. "I would have stayed if it wasn’t for the weight gain," Leo says. "The whole concept of military standards, I absolutely agree with. My fault. I had to go."

But now, with the help of the VA’s free MOVE! program, he’s trying to get his weight under control. He calls it "Weight Watchers for veterans" and so far, he says these meetings have been helpful.

"You open up, somebody else opens up, another person gives out their comments," he says. "There’s no negativity in any of this."

MOVE! is just one of the VA’s healthy living programs. The VA in White River Junction also offers a tobacco cessation program, a diabetes program, a sleep wellness program, a yoga class—there’s even a greenhouse on the hospital campus where veterans can do some therapeutic gardening.

These programs address problems that exist in the civilian world, such as stress, but the causes could be different for veterans. Traumatic combat situations, for example, may cause stress long after the veteran leaves the military, and programs like yoga and creative journaling could ease that stress.

Robin LaCroix is Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Program Manager at the VA in White River.

I think there’s been an awareness over the last couple of decades that we need to start helping people live a healthier lifestyle and the MOVE! program fits into that.

LaCroix says the average participant in the MOVE! program loses about seven pounds. The problem is, only about three percent of eligible veterans sign up for MOVE!, both in White River Junction, at the Manchester VA, and other VA hospitals across New England. LaCroix cites a few reasons.

"Some of it may be getting here," she says. "Some of it may be a work schedule. Some of it may be, maybe their provider doesn’t have the up-to-date information on what’s available."

White River Junction VA Doctor Huge Huizenga says for many vets, getting to the hospital for MOVE! or any other program is still a challenge.

"Many of the classes we have are great if you live close by to White River Junction or one of our community-based clinics, but if you’re not, that’s a hard thing to access," Huizenga says.

That access problem has been remedied, at least in part, by technology. For example, the TeleMOVE! program, allows veterans to check-in remotely. 

LaCroix says the hospital is working to get that up-to-date information to doctors, who could then recommend programs to eligible patients.

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