Imagine the Berkshires as the healthiest county in the United States.

I think about that possibility often and at the same time appreciate how complex the challenge is and will be in the years ahead. Any long and meaningful journey always begins with the first step.

Recently, 20 Berkshire County residents took that huge step by successfully completing our inaugural Berkshire Health Systems Canyon Ranch Institute Life Enhancement Program, or BHS CRI-LEP.

Canyon Ranch Institute is a nonprofit organization that partners with health care providers around the U.S. to help develop and implement an educational and experiential model that can measurably improve the health of individuals struggling to gain traction and positive momentum in their lives. The inaugural intrepid explorers here courageously opened their lives to a new landscape of possibility inspired by more informed self-care and
support.

Canyon Ranch Institute partners with strong organizations like BHS that are committed to improving the health of those they serve, particularly in communities with health challenges, like lower socioeconomic status and a high burden of chronic disease. The program is built on health literacy, an individual's capacity to access, understand, share, and ultimately apply health information in one's life. It is the capacity to make healthier choices and to interpret and respond to life's many challenges in a more balanced way.

Canyon Ranch Institute was the inspiration of Mel Zuckerman, CEO and founder of Canyon Ranch.


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As is true for most innovative creations, Canyon Ranch Institute emerged from Mel's personal life transformation of health and living, and his dream of making better health accessible to everyone. Dr. Richard Carmona, the 17th U.S. surgeon general, is its president.

Prior to the implementation of our first Berkshire Health Systems Canyon Ranch Institute Life Enhancement Program, 16 BHS health care professionals, led by CEO David Phelps, trained extensively to bring the best expertise, integration, coordination and performance possible to the program. These remarkable people have largely volunteered their time and energy, above and beyond their usual activities, to bring this program to life and to our community.

Our team and the comprehensive content and tools we share focus predominantly on the critical determinants of healthy behavior and in essence provide a road map for what can otherwise be a confusing and overwhelming landscape. The program includes evidence-based workshops that explore healthy eating, meal preparation, smart shopping, stress management, individualized movement strategies, facilitated cultivation of meaning and purpose, and rich social connection and interpersonal support. In addition to the workshops, each participant has a one-on-one consultation with a member of our team, including an integrative medicine clinician, dietitian, fitness expert, and behavioral health coach. A comprehensive health and fitness assessment, in addition to blood testing, are obtained before and after the program and repeated again a year later.

Canyon Ranch Institute Life Enhancement Program results from other partnerships have demonstrated impressive results, including weight loss, healthier nutritional choices, reduced depression and stress, better sleep, improved markers of inflammation, sugar, blood pressure and more. This is a resource intense program, underwritten by BHS as a major commitment to further improving the health of our community. It is a critical component of a long-term strategic plan to develop an infrastructure to improve population health, a vision whose time has come and one that can only be achieved by attempting to create conditions that empower people to be more effective stewards of self-care.

We all recognize how hard it can be to translate that which we know to be "good for us" into effective behavior change and improved health. The Berkshire Health Systems Canyon Ranch Institute Life Enhancement Program beautifully leverages knowledge, skill, coping, adaptation, and resilience and does so with a compassionate understanding that we are not on this journey alone. There is no place for judgment or self-critical obsession. The participants and the BHS team navigate as a community of people mindful of our inherent and shared vulnerability, fear, and unrelenting desire to be happy and diminish suffering.

I have never experienced anything as profoundly moving as what I experienced with this group as we celebrated the success of our first graduating class. The power of healing relationships emerged in a remarkable way. We are indeed born to bond, a powerful healing dimension hard to cultivate in our traditional models of care. We are designed to adapt and to survive and we all need help and connection to others to fully enable that possibility. While it is always better to be motivated by hope than by fear, it can be very hard to see hope on one's horizon in today's complex culture. To pay full attention to another is a generous gift.

The 20 intrepid explorers whose unrelenting courage and persistence compelled them to complete this challenging program reminded me of just how precious this gift really is.

Dr. Mark C. Pettus is the director of medical education, wellness and population health at Berkshire Health Systems and is the associated dean of medical education at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.