Check Up: Changing for heart's sake

Posted: March 12, 2013

Philadelphia firefighters who completed a 10-week online program aimed at improving heart health and sent in data afterward lost weight on average and had better cholesterol readings.

David Becker, a Flourtown cardiologist who developed the Healthy Change of Heart program, thought the results were good, especially considering that the firefighters had gotten the program free and that many were "regular guys" not yet on cholesterol-lowering drugs.

"It's a tough nut, these guys," he said. "They're firefighters. They're not health nuts."

Nonetheless, the 30 who have sent Becker data had results similar to people who had taken the classes in person during previous sessions.

On average, the firefighters - spouses were also eligible to join - lost 10 pounds, or 5.5 percent of body mass index. Their triglycerides dropped by 22 percent, and LDL, or bad cholesterol, dropped by 5 percent. Though the program was not aimed primarily at losing weight, the biggest loser lost 30 pounds.

One hundred people signed up for the class and 75 started viewing the online classes. Half of them finished all the classes.

The Inquirer published an article about the program in November.

Becker thinks the firefighters likely would have done better if they had paid something for the course because that improves "compliance and helps motivation."

He and his staff have now completed a Change of Heart graduate school to reinforce some of the key messages. "We're not done with these guys," he said. "You can't make a lifestyle change in 10 weeks."

He now is offering the program to businesses. A group of his patients who had been on a waiting list for the in-person version of the lessons also have signed up for the online classes for $300.

Asked how he did on the program, Joseph Finley, a firefighter and diet veteran, said, "Well," and then paused and sighed. "I wasn't as compliant as I should have been," he said. "Around the holidays, I really got off track."

He started the program at 265 pounds and put weight on during the holidays. He buckled down after that and is now down to about 250. He stopped his cholesterol medicine at the beginning and then followed doctor's orders to go back on. His cholesterol is the same as it was when he was on medication before the diet.

He said that the program was "good" but that he had lost more weight during a weight-loss competition that offered financial rewards and penalties and a public weigh-in.

Finley said he ran into some computer glitches and missed the last three weeks or so of the online classes. He also said that, as someone who has been learning about diet and weight for years, he knew most of what was in the classes. He thinks most overweight people know what they're doing wrong. The solution is "put less in your mouth and get your feet moving more."

Another firefighter, Michael Jackson, thought the program was "very good." He lost nine pounds and both his good and bad cholesterol levels improved. He watched all the videos, exercised more, ate more fresh fruit, and curbed his tendency to finish his children's meals.

He plans to stick with the program. "It's not just a 10-week thing," he said. "It's going to be 100 weeks or 1,000 weeks."

Contact Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or

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