Almost every morning 61-year-old Miriam Escobar leaves her Pembroke Pines home before dawn, heading down I-75 to the Miller School campus. Not only is she putting in extra hours as a program administrator in the Department of Pediatrics but she’s also devoting extra time to do something equally important: starting her day with a workout at the Miller School’s new Medical Wellness Center.

“I have exercised on and off for years, but in the past year I got out of the habit and gained 20 pounds,” says Escobar. “I am determined to take the weight off, but more importantly I want to be healthier overall, especially as I get older. I want to be able to move around better, keep my blood pressure down, and just have a sense of wellness about myself.”

Escobar follows a set routine of cardiovascular work on the treadmill and a weight-training program designed especially for her by a Wellness Center coach after a thorough evaluation. “The facility is so welcoming, the coaches are great, and they are here to help you meet your goals, whatever they might be.”

The Medical Wellness Center officially opened for business at the beginning of October—not a moment too soon when you consider the state of our waistlines. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 65 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese, and despite the well-established health benefits of regular exercise, two out of three Americans live a sedentary lifestyle.

“It’s not easy to make a commitment to physical activity,” says Richard Iacino, assistant vice president for health program development and founder of the Medical Wellness Center. “If it were, everyone would do it, and we would not have the health crisis we have in this country. We have to ask ourselves: What is standing in our way of making the change?

“Our goal is to engage the workforce in wellness. We want to offer an open, fun, non-hurtful, and non-stressful environment for people to begin making physical activity a permanent part of their lives.”

There are major barriers to getting people to exercise—and the Medical Wellness Center is working to address all of them. Just ask 44-year-old Thomas Harris, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology who puts in a long day in the lab studying the mechanism and structure of a particular protein linked to cancer. When his lab work is done, his gym work begins.

“I exercised my whole life, but stopped about four years ago when I moved to a new apartment that did not have workout facilities, and it became very inconvenient to exercise,” Harris says. “It was like a sentence of some sort—I kept saying, ‘I need to get back to exercise,’ but I never did until now, because it’s easy access having it right here where I work.

“The difference in how I feel is incredible—I am sleeping better, my stress level is way down, and I don’t feel guilty eating. This is an invaluable resource open to us. I would tell anyone, ‘Come look around, once you see the facility you’ll be sold.’ It is as terrific as any facility I’ve seen anywhere in the world.”

The Miller School is addressing economic barriers to exercise by keeping Medical Wellness Center membership fees below those charged at other centers—with even further savings through the UM Benefits Office for employees who commit to regular exercise.

There are also plans in the works to help employees find the time, between busy work schedules and family obligations, to exercise.

The Department of Pediatrics is launching a pilot program to promote wellness among its staff. “We understand it may be difficult for employees to use the center before or after normal business hours, so we are trying to offer schedule flexibility as a way of promoting wellness,” says Dennis Harris, assistant chair for administration in pediatrics. “Think about it: If you promote wellness, you will have a healthier workforce. It just seems like a great thing to do.”

Harris says the department is trying things like allowing its hourly employees to combine breaks and their lunchtime into one chunk of time to be used at the Medical Wellness Center. They can also schedule their time during a larger segment of the day, not just limited to the traditional noon lunch hour. “Hopefully if this program works well in pediatrics, it is something that could be tried in other departments,” says Harris. “It is really a win-win situation, because if employees are healthier, they are going to be happier, and happy employees are the best kind of employees.”

Every detail of the facility was designed with employees’ convenience in mind—from the number of lockers (more than 500 in each locker room), to the length of lockers to accommodate longer clothing, to rows of showers to ensure that members can get in, work out, and shower within about an hour. Extra special attention also has been given to the employees who are exercising for the first time.

“The place is about you, the workforce—it was built for you, and we’ve trained people to be your support. If you haven’t already, come take a look at it, and let us help you develop a self-concept of being a healthy, exercising person,” Iacino says.