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Nursing away unhealthy pounds Featured

9:43am EDT July 22, 2002

There’s a saying in health care education that holds: “First, become a nurse. Then, you can be anything.”

Well, maybe not the pope, or CEO of General Motors, or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — but modern American life is filled with people who have taken the common-sense, can-do, caring attitude that characterizes nursing and used it in thousands of diverse health and business endeavors.

In the Pittsburgh area, a prime example is Bridget Chufo, Ph.D., R.N., who first became a nurse and then pursued master’s and doctoral degrees in nursing and applied her expertise to the field of weight loss. She has thousands of clients and operates a headquarters office in Wexford, five offices in Greater Pittsburgh, and three on Long Island, N.Y.

Operating as a franchisee of the national Fit America organization, Chufo enjoys the benefits of having a large national company at her back and the autonomy of running her weight-loss programs according to her own style and insight.

From Pittsburgh to New York and back

Chufo, a native of Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburbs, attended a local private high school, and then, in her words, “blossomed.

“Perhaps I’m fortunate that I’ve always had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do and a knack for finding opportunities for doing it,” Chufo says. “Then, if I found something I wanted to do even more, I just went and did it.”

That attitude took her to Villanova University in Philadelphia for a BSN degree, back to Pittsburgh for an MSN degree at Duquesne University, and eventually to New York University, where she earned her doctorate in 1986. Along the way she put her nursing skills to direct use — working at UPMC Health System’s Presbyterian University Hospital’s heart unit, then in hospice care in and around New York City.

“In all, I’ve been in weight loss for 21 years,” Chufo says. “From 1979 to 1985, I was an employee of a weight loss company. Then, from 1985 to 1995, I had my own business with nine locations in New York and New Jersey.”

Married, with two young children, she and her family returned to Pittsburgh in 1995 and set up Fit America shops in North Hills, Monroeville, South Hills, Washington and Greensburg within several months. She retained three of her offices on Long Island.

A multidisciplinary approach

Chufo’s Fit America organization operates out of offices, not gymnasiums. The core of the program is a healthy eating plan with a higher-than-usual protein content, plus herbs, vitamins, minerals and fatty acid supplements.

Stage two involves behavioral considerations — examining how clients feel about their progress, their motivation and problems that emerge along the course of losing weight. This counseling aspect of the plan is free-form, Chufo explains, and may be daily or weekly, depending on the client’s needs. It can be done face-to-face, by telephone or via the Internet.

The third leg of the Chufo tripod is activity.

“That’s right, just activity,” Chufo says. “I encourage them to move, but there is no prescribed routine, and the emphasis is on steady, gradual progress.”

Chufo says her two decades of experience in the field have shown her conclusively that people do best when they do not dread their weight-loss activities.

“This whole program is about common sense,” she says. “If you ask somebody to ‘give up’ ice cream — totally and forever — that might break their spirit. For some people, ice cream or Pepsi Cola might be a central and cherished part of their daily routine. We might suggest moderation, but we don’t ‘forbid.’ Remember, there’s always another way to get there, even if some ice cream stays in the eating plan.

“In the same way,” Chufo adds, “if somebody is told they ‘must’ run a certain distance or do a certain number of sit-ups, that might turn them off in the early, critical stages. We might suggest simply that they park further from their building at work and walk a little extra. Maybe they can use the stairs instead of the elevator.”

The big pay-off

So how do Chufo and Fit America make money with such a low-key, common sense approach?

“We provide relatively low-cost products and services to a large number of people,” she says. “Counseling and assessment are our services, and dietary supplements are our products. Between Pittsburgh and New York we serve about 50,000 people. Our locations are counseling and distribution centers. We don’t sell ‘meals’ like some of the plans do. There’s no overhead baggage from massive floor space or utilities and capital costs for workout equipment, saunas and the like.”

Adds Chufo: “Our clients don’t get hustled the way they might have been by other plans. They appreciate that and they stay with us. Like I said, we’re simple and we’re effective.”

Partnering with a physician

Chufo’s nursing instincts help her discover new applications and referral methods and she’s developing associations with orthopedic surgeons and other physician specialists whose patients typically would benefit from weight reduction as part of their overall health or recovery from sickness or surgery.

The wraps are still on the plan, but Chufo expects that her Fit America centers may soon become partners with several specialized medical and surgical centers around the Pittsburgh area to serve as “preferred providers” for weight loss. These services would cover children, adults and seniors — all of whom may have special weight-control needs and strategies.

Asked if this planned hospital affiliation may be the next big thing in her life-long campaign to make people lighter, Chufo quips, “Well, why not? It makes sense.”

How to reach: Bridget Chufo, Ph.D., R.N., Fit America, (724) 933-6110