For people trying to eat right and get more exercise, some gentle nagging can go a long way. Just ask Pat Rolloff of New Ulm, Minn. After her mom died last May, Rolloff’s doctor recommended that she try a program called HeartBeat Connections, which would hook her up with a health coach to help her reduce her cholesterol and lose the 30 pounds she had gained from grief and stress.

Rolloff started having monthly phone calls with a health coach and dietitian, Joy Hayes, and within three months, she says, her cholesterol was back to normal. In another few months, she lost the weight.

Data presented last week at the American College of Cardiology conference in Washington, D.C., show that HeartBeat Connections significantly lowered bad cholesterol levels and improved physical activity, stress and medication use for a large group of patients. The free program, which provides health coaches who call patients at high risk for heart disease to check on their behaviors, is part of the larger community wellness project known as Heart of New Ulm, a 10-year effort to change residents’ diets, activities and bodies to improve their health through simple measures.

Rolloff says the regular phone calls worked: She and her husband started eating more salads and exercising more regularly. They even discovered they liked asparagus.

Her calls with Hayes, she says, were a chance to check in on her progress and set goals for the next month.

“If you feel better,” Rolloff said, “then all of a sudden you start making better choices.”

Hayes, her phone coach, said health-improvement goals have to be specific and realistic if patients are going to achieve them. If participants resist her encouragement to eat better because they don’t like vegetables, for example, she said she’ll suggest other healthy options that could make up for it. Hayes said she’ll use tangible rewards to persuade patients, like the prospect of going on a vacation with their grandchildren or walking their daughter down the aisle. “Those are the reasons people make change,” she said.


Rebecca Harrington is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.