Research has shown that 85 percent of people over the age of 50 can’t maintain a significant lifestyle change, be it giving up smoking or sticking to a diet. Why that’s true is just the kind of thing the founders of Mind Body Spirit, Inc. (MBS) think about every day. In fact, the Malvern-based MBS bills itself as a “habit change company,” mainly because its 15-month program is a kind of mini boot camp designed to permanently keep you on track.
The Main Line has its share of spas, diet centers and stress-reduction programs, but MBS may be the region’s first to pull together the latest findings in wellness that include integrated medicine, which combines Western scientific practices with Eastern healing systems. It offers this approach to participants as an individualized, professionally designed life plan, one that considers all aspects of daily living—from money and time issues, to exercise, sleep and diet.
It may sound too good to be true—“lose weight, get rich and be happy”—but the concept of focusing on one’s life (e.g., no time for the gym) instead of the problem (e.g., weight gain) seems to be worth trying. “We think we cracked the code in understanding why people don’t want to change,” says Robert Bulgarelli, the company’s chief medical officer who could be described as the “body” component of MBS.
Bulgarelli’s expertise includes work with two of America’s most famous and pioneering diet and lifestyle wellness figures, Dean Ornish and Andrew Weil. He was on staff at one of Ornish’s retreats in California, completed a two-year fellowship with Weil, and now serves as a nonresident faculty member in Weil’s integrated medicine program at the University of Arizona. Dr. Bob, as his patients call him, is also a physician with the Cardiovascular Group at Riddle and a director of integrative cardiovascular medicine for Main Line Health System.
As MBS’ chief medical officer, Bulgarelli is generally on hand at educational weekday meetings or the start of each 10-week “cycle.” In this early stage, participants are introduced to research studies and hear lectures in order to learn what could be described as “best practice” techniques in eight interrelated areas, including nutrition, exercise, sleep, friendship, spirituality, learning, mindfulness and simplicity.
Participants—only 15-20 in each group—are asked to commit 32 hours to the three-month group phase of the program and have weekly phone sessions with their assigned coaches. After 10 weeks, the coaching continues on a biweekly basis for a year or more, depending on a participant’s needs. (Flexibility also comes in the price of the program, which ranges from $2,400 to $5,000 and can be paid over a period of up to two years.)
For participants, there’s a glut of questionnaires to fill out—a “fun and little scary” process, according to MBS literature. But it’s considered a necessary step in customizing the program’s wellness plan. Bulgarelli oversees the compiling of physical health and family history data. He maintains that this information-gathering stage helps participants develop a strategy based on their lifestyle habits, personalities, motivational style and self-image.
“We look at all aspects of habit change,” Bulgarelli says. “For instance, if you have a crowded schedule and you always feel you don’t have enough time, that’s probably going to affect the amount of exercise you are going to do. It won’t matter if you say you’re determined to lose weight through exercise; your habit of not making time is going to get in the way.”
Even for those participants who confess to being introverts and not into group learning, Bulgarelli says that eventually a unique group bonding takes place. “The program is based on the idea that if you are not making these changes in a supportive, loving environment, you’re not going to have sustained effects.”
The coaching part of MBS is especially supportive, participants say, but not in the way one might expect. It differs from traditional therapy in that the coach and the client are considered equals—even collaborators—in getting to the root of a problem. There’s no real patient in this relationship, and certainly not one with a troubled past or a victim mentality. In coaching terms, everyone is “creative, healthy and whole”—ready to move forward with a little guidance.
Incorporated in June of 2007, MBS is a relatively young company, but many of its methods and concepts came into being after several years of research and decades of experience on the part of its founders. It evolved when Steven Baumgartner, the company’s CEO and the entrepreneur among the company’s three founders, began looking into the possibility of forming a wellness company that would address some of the problems he’d observed during his years working in the healthcare and pharmaceutical fields.
MBS’ 15-month process is based on Baumgartner’s realization that change takes time. “We believe that one of the primary reasons many [wellness] programs fail is that they try to do too much, too soon,” Baumgartner says in reference to his research, which included studying hospital wellness models, alternative medicine practices, and nationally known diet organizations like Weight Watchers and NutriSystem.
In the late 1990s, another member of MBS’ founding team, Jeff Kaplan, an author, psychologist and certified life coach, worked with Bulgarelli to develop the wellness program “Smart Heart.” It was implemented through Main Line Health System at Lankenau Hospital, where Bulgarelli completed his medical residency and cardiology fellowship.
At the time, the focus was on maintaining a healthy lifestyle through stress-reduction techniques and self-awareness—methods they later realized were only a “quick fix,” says Kaplan, who realized he needed to delve further into how the mind-body connection really works.
Kaplan and Bulgarelli went on to study at Duke University’s Center for Living, which ran an eight-week program centered on the then-emerging field of integrated medicine, incorporating the use of yoga, mindfulness meditation, diet and other practices into methods that addressed wellness issues like hypertension, blood sugar levels and cholesterol.
One of several experts in a program that includes dieticians, nutritionists and exercise physiologists, Kaplan brings 25 years of experience in behavioral psychology and life coaching to MBS. Today, he uses mindfulness meditation on an even deeper level, as part of his regimen to explore one’s psycho-spiritual profile and reach a level of self-awareness that includes what he calls “self-mastery” and his five barriers to change. Participants learn this special type of meditation partly through Kaplan’s instructional, take-home CD, The Path, and in a three-hour class early in the program.
Along with self-mastery, a kind of visualizing technique that helps a person reach his or her goals, mindfulness meditation helps break down barriers for change by making participants more aware of their surroundings. The idea is to teach them to be impartial, nonjudgmental observers while also showing them how to embrace reality and live in the moment. “What happens when you raise your self-awareness?” Kaplan poses. “You see that infinitely more possibilities are opened up that you didn’t see before.”
In the MBS program, mindfulness meditation is a lot more than a stress-reduction technique. It helps people see the trees and the forest, so to speak—and it allows them to make decisions without their “critical voice” weighing in, Kaplan says.
Another important point behind MBS is the mind’s propensity to habituate, or turn actions into routines.
“We are making thousands of decisions each day—most of them unconsciously, without thinking about it,” Kaplan says. “That’s a good thing because we would never get anything done without our routines.”
At the same time, when people try to make a change, they might over-think the process and fear it. They might become bored or discouraged, mainly because that new behavior hasn’t become a habit yet, says Kaplan.
“We try to get people to replace ineffective, unhealthy habits with effective, healthy habits,” he says.
Christine Coward, a clinical social worker who now directs MBS’ coaching team, sees the final one-on-one phase of the program as crucial to refining the new “you.”
“Their coach is going to help them come up with a mission and vision statements—something that tells them what they want out of life and what their values are,” Coward says. “There is a big piece of coaching that’s about finding clarity. It’s about creating awareness. I don’t want to call it ‘soul searching,’ but there is a lot of time spent discovering who you are, what’s important to you and what’s your place in the world.”
Pausing to consider the inevitable struggle that comes with any life change, Coward adds, “There are certainly people who have their ups and downs, but what the program does is get them back on track if they fail.”
To learn more, call (215) 206-0922 or visit mindbodyspiritinc.com.