Not giving up: Program offers choice in chronic-pain management

STEP program helps participants understand, prevent and manage chronic diseases and pain
March 30, 2016

Joanne Perna’s knee pain had gotten so bad that all she wanted to do was go home and lay an icepack on top of her legs. Walking was painful; playing with her grandchildren was painful; and signing up for a church-organized vacation — out of the question.

“As long as you’re able, you want to be mobile and pain free,” she said.

But Perna found she was losing that battle on both fronts.

On March 23, 2015, she arrived at Poudre Valley Hospital for knee-replacement surgery. She spent four days in the hospital and then about a month at a rehab facility.
“I have to admit, I was not a good rehab patient,” she said. “The pain was horrible and I was so weak.”

But since surgery, things have changed — drastically. Perna is now pain-free and in May, she will join her fellow church members on a “southern hospitality” trip, where she’ll walk the cobblestone streets of colonial cities.

What changed?

Joanne Perna records her health information and workout routines (done by a UCHealth class instructor for phases I and II) after each of her phase III STEP sessions.
While trying to regain her strength in the pool at UCHealth’s Poudre Valley Medical Fitness in Windsor, Perna noticed an exercise class taking place in the therapy pool and recognized that it could be her chance to feel better.

STEP, supervised therapeutic exercise program, is a referral-based, three-step program to help people understand, prevent and manage their chronic illness or pain through exercise and wellness education.

“People come here to address such things as high blood pressure, obesity, low-back pain and anemia,” said Lauren Bowman, STEP instructor and fitness supervisor with MedFit. “STEP is for anyone at risk for developing a chronic condition or currently living with a chronic condition— that’s the gap we fill, and our program is geared toward progressing and helping people live independently.”

Perna approached the class instructor, who helped her get a referral from her doctor and enroll in STEP.

People new to the program, new to exercise or newly diagnosed with a chronic disease start in step one. The 90-day first phase offers several different classes each week, from strength and flexibility training to aerobic conditioning. To track progress, a fitness specialist records patients’ blood pressure, weight and other health indicators, including specific workout details. This information is entered into Epic, UCHealth’s electronic health record, so that participants’ primary care physicians also can view and monitor their patients’ progress.

“It is very supervised, so it’s almost like having a personal trainer,” Perna said.

Joanne Perna
Joanne Perna, who has spent the past nine months in UCHealth’s STEP program, takes part in one of the program’s tai chi classes at Poudre Valley Medical Fitness center in Windsor.

Step two is a progression of step one and also is 90 days. However, participants are given a bit more freedom in their exercise choices and supervision.

“The first three months were slow. It takes a lot of work to get your muscles working again, but I look forward to coming to class because I know it’s helping me be pain-free,” Perna said.

Perna, now nine months into STEP, has graduated into step three. She records her own health information and attends the classes she wants, with possibilities ranging from water tai chi to Zumba and gentle yoga.

All stages of STEP include a weekly education piece on topics such as healthy eating and exercising at home.

“I don’t want to get into other people’s business, but I’m not sure they even know that they can feel better,” Perna said. “It’s a bit of a slow start, but I’m getting stronger, and STEP has encouraged me to do so. Your doctors are there to help you, but you’ve got to put some effort into it. STEP has helped me take responsibility for my own health.”

STEP is offered at both MedFit in Windsor and UCHealth’s Harmony Campus in south Fort Collins. The program costs $72 per month ($6 per session) and includes three sessions per week for 90 days. The goal is to provide people the tools to manage their conditions and learn the importance of a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise in a controlled, safe environment.

STEP instructors are exercise professionals with a variety of certifications and advanced training in providing an encouraging and compassionate environment for patients to improve health and manage pain.

Visit or call 970.674.6505 to learn more.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.