Wanda Parker could retire from her position as a patient service associate at the Duke Health & Fitness Center.
But at 64, she isn’t quite ready.
For the past three decades, she has been stationed near the center’s front doors, greeting visitors with a smile, friendly conversation or encouraging words.
“I love what I do,” said Parker who’s worked at the center since it opened in 1991. “That’s why I haven’t left. I just love the way I can talk with people; it just makes my day.”
Set amid a 26-acre tract of piney woodland off of Erwin Road, the Duke Health & Fitness Center is at one end of the Duke Center for Living campus. With big windows and an airy, colorful interior, it’s usually a bright and busy place filled with people doing what they can to get closer to – or maintain – a healthy lifestyle.
As the center celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, it’s that spirit of well-being that’s worthy of celebrating. And it’s that same positive energy that’s kept people like Parker, and the visitors she’s befriended through the years, coming back.
The Duke Health & Fitness Center at 3475 Erwin Road has around 2,000 members, a quarter are Duke staff and faculty members. The 30,000-square foot center has a saltwater swimming pool, indoor and outdoor tracks, group exercise spaces and weight and cardio machines. But it’s the relaxed and supportive vibe, and the center staff’s ability to tailor training plans for members facing a variety of situations – such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and hypertension – that sets it apart.
“Our mission has never changed,” said Health Center Administrator Jennifer Bachman. “We’re still taking an exercise approach to managing chronic illness and disease. I think that’s why we love what we do, we’re making a positive difference in people’s lives. That’s incredibly rewarding.”
Memberships to the center are available to anyone age 16 or older, regardless of age, physical abilities, or affiliation with Duke. However, active and retired Duke staff and faculty get a reduced rate with an annual contract.
The Duke Health & Fitness Center opened in 1991 as part of the Duke Center for Living campus, which began as a $10.4 million complex of three buildings.
The Center for Living was initially envisioned as a place to build on the work of the Duke University Preventive Approach to Cardiology, which explored ways to improve and prolong the lives of patients suffering with heart disease or other chronic illnesses through structured exercise and nutrition programs.
After the Center for Living officially opened on October 17, 1991, patients and researchers could use the labs and diagnostic facilities of the Andrew Wallace Clinic Building, the classrooms and kitchens of the Sarah W. Steadman Center for Nutritional Studies and the sprawling exercise facility that would eventually be known as the Duke Health & Fitness Center.
“They were really taking a scientific, revolutionary approach to changing patients’ lives through lifestyle habits and lifestyle change,” Bachman said. “I think that was revolutionary at the time, and that approach is still very valid today.”
Over the next three decades, the Center for Living saw its share of change as the work of the Sarah W. Stedman Center for Nutritional Studies and the Duke University Preventive Approach to Cardiology were absorbed into other Duke entities. The Andrew Wallace Clinic Building would eventually house the James R. Urbaniak Sports Sciences Institute, while new facilities were built nearby, such as the Duke Aesthetic Center in 1997, and the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in 2006.
But the Duke Health & Fitness Center has been a constant.
For the past three decades, members of the Duke and Durham communities have circled the track, worked on the exercise equipment, and sweated together in the group fitness rooms, all putting in the work to protect their health.
For 27 years, until he retired in 2017, Gilbert Smith worked in the Duke University School of Medicine, helping oversee corporate research funding, including that for clinical trials. Three times a week, he would begin his day with a trip to the Duke Health & Fitness Center, where he would spend an hour or so on treadmills, elliptical trainers or weight machines.
Now 74, Smith’s routine hasn’t changed much as he still makes it to the center for morning workouts. Much like Wanda Parker, who greets visitors at the front door, the chance to spend some time bettering his health around positive people is something he can’t pass up.
“The people there have always been great,” Smith said. “They’ve got really good knowledgeable, cheerful people who point you in the right direction.”
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