A gym? The old Carol Liebert wouldn’t go anywhere near one.

“I had visited a gym with a friend and I couldn’t take it with all the size 2 girls walking through the locker room,” Liebert said. “That was so not me.”

The new Carol Liebert? She’s working out three days a week with the Spectrum Health Metabolic Wellness program.

And loving it.

“That’s what’s so nice about working out here, you’ve got big people, skinny people, you’ve got people on oxygen,” Liebert said.

Her medical journey began in April 2015 when she started experiencing what felt like butterflies in her chest. It turned out to be atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “It was like a fluttering. They shocked me to get it back in rhythm.”

A cardiologist performed a heart catheterization and, on July 14 of last year, replaced her mitral valve with a titanium version.

“I call it my bionic valve,” Liebert said, laughing.

Effective exercise

Last October, she started cardiac rehabilitation and has since become sort of a bionic version of her old self.

She did it all—treadmills, steps, weights, stationary bikes, rowing machines.

“It’s a small gym but they have everything you could want,” Liebert said. “Everyone is in there for something similar. They either have lung or heart problems. We’ve got incisions. You’re on a monitor feeding the information to monitors behind the desk and (nurses) are watching you all the time.”

She finished that program last December, but craved more cardiovascular workouts.

Her heart doctor, Thomas Boyden, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group cardiologist and head of the Spectrum Health Metabolic Wellness program, encouraged her to join.

“I am a large person and he said, ‘I think this program would be really good for you,’” Liebert said. “I didn’t want to stop going to the gym. That floored everyone in my family and my friends because I am not the gym type.”

She said the Metabolic Wellness program is similar to cardiac rehab, but without the monitors. She attends every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

As an added bonus, the program includes meetings with a dietitian and healthy eating tips. She now watches food labels carefully, and thinks before she ingests.

“You learn about good food, bad food, how to measure food,” Liebert said. “I’ve taken all the classes twice now and I learn something new every single time. I am now finishing up my third round of Metabolic Wellness. Next week I start the fourth round.”

In other words, Liebert is becoming a Metabolic Wellness lifer.

It’s hard, to be sure, but she’s game.

“We all grimace when we go in the door at 9:30, but by 10:30 we’re all smiling because we did it,” she said. “I never thought at 64 years old that I would be liking exercise, but it’s a very close-knit group. We get to know each other.”

Her other job

The other patients know Liebert’s history. She’s a full-time caregiver for her husband, who has survived four strokes.

She said the workout time is a nice respite from those duties.

“I get three hours a week to romp and stomp at the gym,” she said. “And I like that there are nurses there if somebody gets into trouble.”

She witnessed that once—a patient taken out on a gurney into a waiting ambulance.

Liebert said the program directors encourage, but don’t push people beyond their limits.

“I have not lost a lot of weight, but my muscle has gone up,” Liebert said. “They are more concerned about your diet. You can make an appointment at any time to see the dietitian.”

Dr. Boyden stops by the gym every Wednesday.

When she was on the Nu-Step machine, Dr. Boyden challenged her to go from level 6 to level 8.

“I took that as a dare,” she said. “And I did it. When I got to 8, I said to the nurses, ‘OK you guys, you need to march this sheet upstairs and show him that I did get to 8.’”

Liebert thrives in this environment.

“I call it my life sentence,” she said. “I have to do this.”

Beyond the gym walls

Her newfound passion escapes the gym walls.

She measured out her driveway and calculated that 35 laps around her driveway equals a mile. That way, she can still exercise without straying too far from home.

“You figure out what you can do to adapt,” she said. “I’m a work in progress. That’s what I say every day, to others and to myself.”

Dr. Boyden said the 12-week program is open to anyone, even without a doctor referral.

“It is designed for people who are overweight and looking to get back into shape in a safe environment,” Dr. Boyden said.

The Metabolic Wellness team includes exercise physiologists, a dietitian and a clinical psychologist who keeps an eye out for underlying weight-gain issues such as depression and stress.

Dr. Boyden said besides the obvious physical benefits, the program has become an oasis of sorts for Liebert.

“I think it’s helping her tremendously,” Dr. Boyden said. “She helps take care of her husband who has some chronic illnesses. It’s a safe haven for her. …She can focus on herself and be with people focused on helping her.”