Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 39
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
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Web-based “Princeton Living Well” Aims to Boost Community Fitness

Dilshanie Perera

“I really want to motivate people to make health a priority in their lives,” said Gail Everett, an avid power walker, exercise enthusiast, and lifelong resident of Princeton. She’d been venturing into the community since 1986 to get the word out about the importance of exercise and proper nutrition, and had been lamenting the lack of free health programs in Princeton. Until now.

When Ms. Everett found out about Princeton Living Well (PLW), a community web-based resource dedicated to promoting health and fitness that was launched this April, she immediately got involved. Citing the project as “one of the best things that’s happened to this community in 25 years,” Ms. Everett now leads the daily “Health is Wealth” walking program, teaches aerobics classes, and continues to inspire residents to become fitter.

PLW is the brainchild of Rick Weiss, the president of Viocare, a Princeton-based company that develops tools to connect communities with healthcare establishments and vice versa. After working with the Princeton Regional Health Department on the website for a weight-loss and wellness program called “Lighten Up Princeton” and collaborating with Alchemist and Barrister chef and owner Arthur Kukoda on a healthy prix fixe menu, Mr. Weiss was moved to create a website for the community, and Princeton Living Well was born.

Sustainability is an integral focus of the project, according to Mr. Weiss. An incentives system allows residents as well as businesses to benefit from the site. Residents are connected to myriad health resources including articles on nutrition, a community calendar of events, tools to calculate things like body mass index and target heart rate, workout plans, a place to log workouts, a forum in which to ask questions, and a rewards system in which they can earn points to receive discounts at local businesses and restaurants.

As Mr. Weiss sees it, “the more people that use the system, the more local businesses will get marketing opportunities, and thus more business.” He added that “the healthcare organizations involved will see better use of their programs, so you get a nice loop between these three communities.”

“Underlying it all, we’re looking to improve diet and increase physical activity, and you could say there’s a social capital aspect of it as well,” said Mr. Weiss, noting that the project contributes to “building community.”

Ms. Everett’s involvement in PLW is an ideal example of such community building, said Mr. Weiss, noting that she and her students are “driving more and more people to go out and push other people and support them to make the change” to a healthier lifestyle.

“I’ve always worked out on my own, and any time I could see someone to help, I did,” remarked Ms. Everett. “But I’ve never had the resources to take it out into the public.” Now that PLW is up and running, Ms. Everett has a forum through which to share her knowledge and encourage others. In addition to improving their own fitness, Ms. Everett emphasized that she and her group are “making friends and having a good time.”

Ms. Everett’s interest in a holistic approach to health that incorporates nutrition, exercise, and mental well-being was spurred by her mother’s death in 1970. Having been afflicted with high blood pressure and diabetes “before the message got out about aerobics,” her mother “never had a chance to be healthier,” noted Ms. Everett. “All my mother knew was to be dedicated to her five kids.”

Regarding Ms. Everett’s own children, she joked that “they grew up in baby chairs watching me work out, and when they started walking, they started working out too.”

Getting to see others enjoy the benefits of exercise is a motivating force for Ms. Everett. After a free fitness class at Redding Circle two and a half decades ago, she said she “fell in love with aerobics” and wanted to share the experience with others. One woman who was in high school when she attended Ms. Everett’s first class recently came back to attend its most recent iteration, 23 years later.

The accessibility of PLW is highly gratifying, Ms. Everett said, noting that “some people haven’t had the opportunity to find out what it means to be healthier” because “you go up to the Y or New York Sports Club and you can’t afford it.”

Once members join the site for free, they have access to health resources and information. Even the casual internet surfer can learn a lot from the briefest of perusals. Carol Feiveson, the administrator for PLW, said that over 50 businesses and 400 people are involved in the website, and that several teams collaborated. A medical group at the Yale-Griffin Preventative Research Center designed the various health tools found on the PLW site, and a team from the University of Minnesota advised them about the rewards system.

“My dream is to see something like PLW live forever,” enthused Ms. Everett. Currently, the site is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, and is being evaluated. Mr. Weiss hopes that as part of the sustainable model, businesses will ultimately provide the funding necessary to maintain the system.

“Sometimes people think that exercise has to be a hard thing,” acknowledged Ms. Everett, “but just 30 minutes a day is enough, and you don’t have to run fast either.” Of the website itself, she said, “I’m sometimes on Princeton Living Well multiple times a day, because I love it.”

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