Battle of the Bulge

When it comes to healthy living, Fairfax County leads the state.

     When Gene Proctor of Annandale went in for his annual check-up at age 56, he received some unwelcome news: He had high cholesterol. His doctor wrote out a prescription for Lipitor and handed it to him. “I told her I wasn’t going to take medicine,” Proctor says. “She said, ‘Well, you’d better find something to do with this high cholesterol then.’”

     Fortunately for Proctor, it was easy to find something to improve his level of fitness in Fairfax. Last year, for the third year in a row, the Robert Wood Johnson/University of Wisconsin Public Health Institute County Health Rankings Study named Fairfax Virginia’s healthiest county.

     Proctor joined a training program affiliated with the Metro Run & Walk fitness apparel shop in Springfield and started running. Within a year, he had lowered his cholesterol from 230 to 180 and had dropped 60 pounds. He never filled the prescription—and gladly handed it back to his doctor at his next physical.  

     Stories like Proctor’s aren’t unusual in Fairfax County, where more and more people are seeking healthy lifestyles. “This community is very aware of its health and keeping healthy,” says Gerald L. Gordon, president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Fairfax County, who holds a doctorate in international economics. “You’ll find gyms and trails and parks because there’s a demand for it.”

     Fairfax County’s park system is one of the best in the country. Its Park Authority is a three-time winner of the National Gold Medal from the American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration (AAPRA) and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). Since only 15 to 20 percent of the parkland’s 24,000 acres are developed, the “rest of it is just nature you can access,” says Sandra Stallman, manager of park planning for the Park Authority. “We think there are spiritual and physical benefits to being outdoors … to finding one’s place in the natural world.”

     On a cool and cloudy Sunday morning visit to Burke Lake Park, I find several residents “tackling the nature deficit,” as Stallman calls it, in lots of different ways. Sixteen-year-old high school cross-country racer Louis Colson of Alexandria has run 11 miles. I see a man out for a leisurely stroll and a dad hiking the trail around Burke Lake with his two young children. I also chat with Anne Johnston and John Greenlee of Fairfax Station. They have walked at Burke Lake Park almost daily for 2 ½ years. Both are in their 50s and have seen their overall health and wellbeing improve dramatically as a result. “This park is heavily wooded. It’s beautiful,” says a bundled-up Greenlee, donning iPod headphones clipped to the front of his jacket. “The wildlife is really attractive. We see heron, bald eagles periodically, ducks, chipmunks, geese, red-wing blackbirds—that’s always a thrill. We saw a woodpecker this morning.”

     “The fresh air and sunshine is healthy, and a lot of people forget that you can’t get that in a gym or in your aerobics class,” says Johnston, armed with light hand weights and a bright smile. Both she and Greenlee are flushed and cheerful, despite the cold. “We also get a lot out of seeing other people out here and saying hello. It’s social.”

     The parks aren’t the only place in Fairfax where one can blend exercise with social life. A large number of residents who enjoy this combo also play in the Fairfax Adult Softball (FAS) program, the largest Amateur Softball Association registered program in Virginia. A fixture in Fairfax County for more than 30 years, FAS has more than 900 teams that play seven nights per week during the season, which runs from April 1 to October 31.

     “We have a league for every skill set there is, and we even have social teams,” says Fairfax Adult Softball League representative Christine Idip, who plays first base for a co-ed division team and met her husband playing softball with FAS. In addition to men’s and women’s leagues, FAS offers church, corporate, masters (age 35+) and seniors (age 50+) leagues.

     But for those who prefer to sweat it out indoors, Fairfax County is gym central. It is home to a wide array of gyms and an increasing number of boutique-fitness options such as yoga, Pilates and kickboxing. “The trend in the industry is moving toward specialty-type gyms,” says Sam Heaps, co-owner of Title Boxing in Springfield. “Our classes run at high-intensity. People are getting results, and they don’t even have to think about it. They just have to show up.”

     On a recent visit, I find siblings Eisha, 13, Akash, 17, and Jai Sharma, 16, of Springfield trying their first Title Boxing class. The 60-minute workout never lets up: Remixed versions of popular songs pulse while participants do a dynamic series of punch-kick combinations called out by an instructor, sandwiched between intervals of running in place, jumping jacks and push-ups. Fifteen minutes of core exercises—some done with a medicine ball—round out the workout. A variety of ages attend the class, but everyone, no matter the fitness level, is winded. I’m at the punching bag next to 14-year-old Anna King. We power through the workout with the occasional chat and smile. But it’s tough. We wear our sweat like badges of honor. “It gives me a lot of stamina,” says King, who also runs cross-country and track. “I don’t like to stay still, so this is perfect for me.” The Sharma siblings had a good workout, too. After the class, they sign up for a membership. They, along with King, will definitely be back.

     Even for the most dedicated of exercisers among us, ennui can set in over time. (What runner or cyclist hasn’t reached the end of the iPod playlist with no companion in sight and miles still to go?) The Barre Method classes offered at Studio Be Pilates in Fairfax Corner are designed to provide the antidote: an intense, boredom-beating workout. The studio opened in 2005 and serves all of Fairfax County with Pilates equipment and mat classes. Owner Carla Vercoe, who bought the studio in 2008, says her clients range in age from 13 all the way up to their 70s.

     Each Barre Method workout combines ballet, Pilates, calisthenics and yoga to the backdrop of a disco beat. There are no tutus or genteel piano accompaniments in this class—no gliding across the floor like I remember in the nine years of classical ballet classes I took as a kid. Instead, dutiful students perform quick dance, Pilates and core movements called out by an instructor. When our hour is up, I’m surprisingly energized, though every muscle seems to be shaking. I can’t help but wonder, ‘Wasn’t this much easier when I was younger?’ Maybe the solution is to go to more barre classes, I think, as I chat with Jennifer Enga, a 38-year-old mom of two, from Chantilly. She doesn’t look a day over 31. Enga takes regular Pilates and barre classes at Studio Be with her sister-in-law. “We do class once a week. It’s a fitness thing, it’s a social thing, and it’s good!” she says. “My sister-in-law and a friend of ours chat (sometimes too much) during class. And we usually have lunch afterward, so it’s a great combo.”

     But it’s not all about exercise in Fairfax County. As residents have become more aware of staying in shape, they have also grown more attuned to fueling their bodies. Consumer demand has led to increased access to healthy food choices in the area, says Elizabeth Dicks, owner of Healthway Natural Foods, a family-owned business serving Fairfax County for 33 years.

     “It’s like country music,” Dicks laughs. “I was doing it before it was cool.” Indeed, Healthway’s Alexandria location features items that could once only be found in specialty stores: local varieties of dark wildflower or light clover honey (you can dispense your own), herbs, spices and grains in bulk, organic dairy and eggs and gluten-free pastas and baked goods. There is powdered plant protein, an aisle devoted to natural supplements and a homeopathic wall with capsules containing natural remedies organized by ailment.  

     Nowadays, Dicks has competition from Whole Foods, as well as from larger, more mainstream chains like Giant, which has increased its natural and organic food selection. “There’s more exposure than ever before, and that’s because of the growing interest,” says Dicks. “As more people become aware that what you eat is what you are, they find there are more places to get these things.”

      Corresponding with this desire for high-quality food, the locavore movement has made farmers’ markets popular in Fairfax County, as it has elsewhere. “People are starting to recognize the difference in both nutrition and taste buying from the farmers’ market,” says Mae Carroll, coordinator for the Fairfax County Farmers Markets. In addition to the many independently-owned and -operated farmers’ markets, the county runs 11 others for a total of 76 vendors. From May to November each year, customers can buy fresh produce, eggs, meats, cut flowers, artisan breads and cheeses, fresh-baked pastries and more from these local foodie havens.

     “In the past five or six years, the overall knowledge of our customers has gone up,” says Carroll. “They really know what to ask .… questions about how the cattle are kept for our meat vendors or how the dairy cows are milked for our creameries …. or what kinds of pesticides and herbicides are used on the fields for our produce vendors.”

     Perhaps the most wonderful part of the experience, however, is the teachable moments farmers’ markets provide for Fairfax County’s youngest residents. “Whether it’s the nanny or the grandmother or the mom or the dad, they bring the kids out, and the kids get excited about eating the broccoflower or the dinosaur kale or the vegetables that other kids might not want to eat. You can literally see a 5-year-old get excited about broccoli,” says Carroll.  

     Like exercise and food choices, health care options in Fairfax County have evolved and expanded too, with consumers increasingly embracing alternative treatments. John Grimsley, 71, a tall, trim Sean Connery look-alike, began coming to Serendipity Wellness Studio in Burke for regular therapeutic massage as part of a treatment plan after two automobile accidents and continued coming afterwards. “I felt a lot better [after the treatment period ended], and I am more flexible than I used to be,” he says.

     “Most of our clients are the proactive type,” says Jennifer Ferdinand, 41, the studio’s owner. “They’re trying to take care of themselves to stay out of the doctor’s office.” Standing at just five feet tall and cutting a slight figure, she’s hardly overpowering. Yet, Ferdinand’s work on the massage table has a powerful effect, according to Grimsley. He now comes for regular massage twice a month, and credits the massage therapy for helping him heal and promoting his overall wellness. “Massage helps improve the way your body functions,” says Ferdinand. “It improves lymphatic flow. It improves blood flow and helps reset your system. It allows your body to rebuild.” Pregnancy massage and isometric muscle balancing services are also on Ferdinand’s menu, as are Shiatsu, Thai and Lavashell massage. In addition, Ferdinand integrates holistic wellness coaching into her practice, highlighting diet changes, exercise and other lifestyle issues.

     Holistic, preventive treatments, such as those offered at Serendipity, have more and more become part of the mainstream when it comes to healthy living in Fairfax County. This change reflects a shift in national thought that’s just now beginning to take shape. “For a long time, the conversation has focused only on health care,” says Angela Russell, community engagement lead for the Robert Wood Johnson/University of Wisconsin study. “While we know that health care is very important, our research shows that most of what affects our health actually occurs outside of the doctor’s office.”

     Programs offered through Kaiser Permanente and Inova, two prominent players in the county’s health care system, reflect the change in view from medical care as a treatment-only endeavor to one of comprehensive, total-wellness support. Both hospital systems offer educational classes on healthy living, such as smoking cessation, diabetes care and even emotional health, and they’re making them convenient to consumers. “We’re taking the education to schools, to community centers and to employers,” says Jeff Carr, corporate and consumer services growth officer at Inova.

     When it comes to treatment, both entities also feature premier facilities in the Fairfax County area. Kaiser Permanente has 10 medical centers and six specialty centers, and supports 186,000 members in Northern Virginia. Inova Fairfax Hospital was named Best Nationally Ranked Hospital in the Washington, D.C., Metro area and #2 in the state of Virginia in 2012-2013 by U.S. News and World Report. Inova Fairfax is also in the middle of an $850 million expansion, begun in 2010, that will include an 11-story medical/surgical tower and a 12-story replacement tower for the women’s and children’s hospitals. Inova Fair Oaks Hospital was selected as a Top Hospital in 2012 by the nonprofit Leapfrog Group and will debut a new cancer center in 2013.

     Kaiser just opened a new state-of-the-art medical facility in Tysons Corner this past August and was also recognized as a top performer nationally in Consumer Reports magazine’s 2012 annual report on quality health plans nationwide.

     But keen to be certain that everything done to support the health of all of the county’s residents, including the three and a half percent who live in poverty, according to Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, the county’s director of health, the community-based Partnership For a Healthier Fairfax is conducting a strategic planning process. Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships (MAPP) is aimed at identifying Fairfax County’s public-health issues and developing ways to address them. The Partnership wants to improve access to health care and to help the current health care workforce respond to the county’s changing socioeconomic and cultural demographic. It is also working toward new strategies for improving access to healthy resources like recreational areas for exercise and better food options.

     “We’re trying to very systematically identify what’s in place, where the gaps are and how we can address those gaps,” says Partnership co-chair Julie Knight. “We are very fortunate in Fairfax. We have a lot of good things going on. But we’re such a large community that there are pockets where people might fall through the cracks or where we’re not as efficient.”

     Back out on the trail, Gene Proctor leads a group of runners from the Metro Run & Walk distance running group on a one-mile uphill jog. The group, which includes a mix of men and women ranging in age from their 30s to their 60s, has already finished a four-mile loop around Lake Accotink, and everyone is tired. Proctor, however, shows no signs of slowing down. He’s ahead of the pack, calling from the front, challenging the others to get to the top.

     Now, at age 64, Proctor still runs an average of 30 miles per week. In his eight years as a runner, he has finished two marathons, 10 half marathons and a peppering of fun runs in between. When you meet Proctor, you instantly realize that his health improvements are born of some serious motivation and sparked by an inner fire. But they’re also supported by the fitness groups, food stores and markets, medical facilities and independent businesses that are meeting the demand in the region for healthier living.

     Proctor is grateful for that support. His outlook is pretty good, too.

     He says when he lost the weight, “My doctor’s reaction was, ‘Let’s see how long you can keep it off.’ It’s been four years now. I think that qualifies as a lifestyle change.”

Find it Here

For a list of Fairfax County farmers’ markets, locations and hours of operation, visit

To discover Fairfax County’s parks, recreational opportunities and fitness centers, visit

Read about the Partnership for a Healthier Fairfax at

For more on the County Health Rankings Study, go to

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