By Anne Marie Amacher
DAVENPORT — Last year a diocesan priest, responding to a question for a story, made a comment suggesting that St. Ambrose University’s physical therapy department could work with priests on wellness and fitness. His comment wasn’t ignored.
Mike Puthoff, assistant professor and assistant director of physical therapy at the Davenport university, called Father Tim Sheedy after reading his comment. “We sat down and talked,” said Puthoff.
After developing a program based on the department’s curriculum and service learning hours, Puthoff spoke to the Diocesan Presbyteral Council about what could be done for priests’ health and wellness. Fr. Sheedy, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bettendorf, talked to the priests of the Davenport Deanery about the program as well.
Fr. Sheedy thinks some priests were leery. What specifically would the program entail? “Was it going to be six weeks? Twelve weeks? Was it going to be once a week or more?” Those details were still being worked out.
Father Jim Vrba, who serves on the Presbyteral Council, finally decided to sign up. The pastor of St. Mary Parish in Wilton acknowledged he needed help with wellness and would give it a try. In addition to Frs. Sheedy and Vrba, a third priest, who asked not to be identified, took advantage of the program.
Puthoff said a few additional priests were interested in the program, but because of distance from the school, “I encouraged them to find a physical therapist or exercise science program in their area.”
Many people think of physical therapists as helping people after an injury or medical event such as a stroke. “But we also work on prevention and being healthy and well before issues develop down the road,” he said.
The priests’ wellness program included an assessment of health, goal-setting and an individualized program for each. They all engaged in basic stretching, muscle building, walking, endurance and a nutritional assessment. “We are not nutritionists, but we did offer USDA guidelines,” Puthoff said.
Physical therapy students had the option to work with the priests; it was not a class requirement. “The students were motivated to work with them.”
Student Caitlin Herina said more students signed up to help than needed. She was honored to be selected to work with Fr. Sheedy.
“We’ve had some successes,” she said of Fr. Sheedy during his sixth and final visit May 3 on the St. Ambrose campus. Fr. Sheedy admitted he didn’t meet all of his goals and didn’t always follow the advice Herina gave, but he enjoyed the program. An assessment completed the first and last weeks measured progress in such areas as muscle strength, body fat and weight. Better flexibility, balance and toning were among the goals Fr. Sheedy set. In a lower-level room in Hayes Hall, Fr. Sheedy did balancing exercises. “He was all over the place when we started (with balance),” Herina said. “He is much more flexible and not so tight. He has much better balance.” Fr. Sheedy agreed. Some of the exercises involving his left leg were more challenging because he had torn an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), a knee ligament, several years ago.
Physical therapy student Zac Cupples, who worked with Fr. Vrba, wants to be a trainer and felt this was a great “stepping stone” toward that goal.
“Zac has been a good mentor to me. He’s my drill sergeant,” Fr. Vrba asid. Cupples corrected him the first time he made that remark, telling the priest to call him a “drill servant.” Both laughed during their May 5 session in Hayes Hall.
Basic stretching, balancing exercise and simple exercises such as going from a sitting position to standing position without the aid of a table or using the side of a chair helped to build strength. “I need help with wellness. I have a checkup every six months,” Fr. Vrba said, “but I needed to supplement what I was doing.”
Cupples worked with Fr. Vrba on flexibility. “One goal I have,” Fr. Vrba said, “is to be able to genuflect at the altar again. I do a profound bow, but I want to be able to genuflect.” He’s on his way toward that goal. Fr. Vrba admitted that weight is still a factor, but he feels he has better balance and flexibility and wants to continue to reach his goal. “You’re well on the road,” Cupples told him.
Both Frs. Sheedy and Vrba said learning about nutrition was informative. They learned about healthier meal choices, especially when eating out, and how to monitor portion size. They were advised what foods to avoid, and to drink more water and eat smaller, more frequent meals.
That is especially important to Fr. Sheedy who has diabetes. He frequently skipped or ate a very small breakfast, which Herina said was not a good decision. “I’m getting back on target,” Fr. Sheedy said. “My biggest fallback is breakfast. But I’m getting better at accomplishing that goal.”
Thanks to the wellness program, Fr. Sheedy noted that the burning feeling in his feet, a consequence of diabetes, is being alleviated and his back doesn’t feel as tight.
Fr. Vrba told Cupples how he had been making better dinner choices to cut down on fat. But he also admitted that when he moves to Solon this summer, “It’s going to be hard to resist the kolaches.”
Both priests intend to continue their stretching, balancing and toning exercises, but say it’ll be tougher when you don’t have someone to “report to” each week. Since beginning the program, they walk more often in addition to doing their daily exercise routine. “I slacked off this winter,” Fr. Sheedy admitted. But he’s resumed walking and feels more fit. Fr. Vrba walks daily to pick up the mail at the post office, a 15-minute walk each way.
Both priests hope the program will be offered again and that other priests will take the challenge to learn more about their wellness. Puthoff says he plans to offer the program next spring to coincide with one of the classes offered then. In the meantime, Puthoff recommends that priests, as well as parishioners, take advantage of “big-box” stores to just walk around. Mornings are best, he noted. “Be aware of your resources around you.”
Fr. Sheedy would still like to see priests throughout the diocese be able to work out in gyms at St. Ambrose or other sites at a free or reduced price to encourage wellness. “It’s vital for all of us.”