A recent study by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranked Missouri as the 12th most obese state in the country. It predicted that by 2030, 62 percent of Missourians will be obese. It is a shocking statistic, and an outcome that Dr. Jennifer Wessels is trying to help avoid through her efforts as a family practitioner at Barnes West Primary Care, part of the BJC Medical Group. “I get to take care of people from all walks of life, of all ages, and I work not only to overcome their current health problems, but also prevent them from occurring in the future,” she says.
Those efforts go beyond her regular medical practice as Wessels works with her patients to achieve healthy lifestyles. Interested becoming a doctor since high school, she attended Saint Louis University for medical school, where she “realized that a lot of diseases could be prevented—from Type 2 diabetes to high blood pressure—by people keeping a good diet, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising.” Pursuing that realization, Wessels also became a certified personal trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine while completing her medical degree. “I’m able to use that extra knowledge to consult with my patients and help them reach their health goals.”
Wessels offers this additional education and support, free of charge, to all of her patients, whether they are coming to her for a routine check-up or because of a medical condition. At the first consultation, she will discuss diet and exercise with the patients and provide them with informational handouts that offer healthy eating tips, as well as guides to log their exercise and food habits. From there, Wessels can help her patients focus on watching what they eat, while pursuing extra physical activity. Knowing their medical history, she is able to suggest specific, safe exercises that are tailored to their abilities. “I try to present the idea that having a healthy lifestyle is not just a quick fad diet or something to do for a short period of time,” explains Wessels, who stays fit by eating small, healthy meals throughout the day and running with family and friends. “It’s something you need to do for your entire life. How are you going to have healthy eating habits on a daily basis? What kind of exercise routine are you going to maintain, to stay healthy and strong for years, even as an older patient?”
The focus on a healthy lifestyle is more important than ever, as the epidemic of obesity grows in America. An abundance of fast food restaurants—combined with lack of physical activity as adults spend most of their day working at a computer or sitting in traffic—are major contributing factors to being overweight, which can lead to serious medical issues. Diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol stem from increased body weight, while there are associations between obesity and higher risks of cancer, arthritis and osteoporosis. “All of these issues can be prevented with diet and exercise,” Wessels points out.
Children are not far behind adults in the dangers of obesity. Wessels explains that doctors are seeing a larger percentage of overweight kids who are being set up for the same problems as adults, just at an earlier age. “Healthy habits start in the family and kids are going to look at their parents as role models. Adults need to get themselves healthy, not only for themselves, but to provide a good example for their children.”
While Wessels just opened her practice at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital at the beginning of August, she already is seeing her extra efforts pay off. Several patients to whom she provides exercise training and weigh-ins are losing weight and moving their blood pressures into normal ranges. “My goals are to give people the knowledge of how they can live a healthy life. I want to work with my patients and limit the amount of medications or interventions needed, while getting them to a point where they are as healthy as they can be.”
On the Cover: Located on the campus of Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital, family practitioner Dr. Jennifer Wessels takes care of patients, from infants to older adults, with a focus on helping them live healthy lives. For more information, call 996-3430 or visit barnesjewishwestcounty.org.