Wanda Bennett was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. Then after she started chemotherapy, doctors discovered a painful hole in her intestine.

So her health was looking pretty bleak to her - until she got a prescription to go to the gym.

But Bennett didn't just pick the closest place to her Vineland home to do her workouts. She went to the Inspira Fitness Connection, which was named the national pilot program last year for Exercise is Medicine by the American College of Sports Medicine.

Exercise is Medicine, started by ACSM and the American Medical Association in 2007, promotes the health benefits of workouts to both patients and their doctors.

The Inspira Fitness Connection is a sprawling gym - that also includes a fully equipped physical-therapy office, dietitians, nutritionists and other specialists - in a perfect location to be part of that medical-fitness program. It sits just down a hill and across a road from the Inspira Vineland Medical Center, the Cumberland County city's main hospital.

Fitness Connection staff members say that location works well for patients who get sent there - who often then go on to become part of the regular workout crowd at the gym. And Bruce Willson, the director, says about 70 percent of the people who go to the Fitness Connection use the machines and weights and group classes the same way members do at any gym anywhere.

Those customers include some very healthy, fit people - among them Mike Trout, the Millville High School baseball star who has become a Major League Baseball star in his first two seasons as a California Angel. The American League all-star still goes back to the Fitness Connection to work out in the off-season, and Willson proudly points out the mark Trout has made in the Performance Improvement Training wing of the gym.

It's about 11.5 feet above the floor - which is how high Trout, who also played basketball in high school, touched on a wall in a recent test of his vertical leap. The gym also shows off Trout's picture and autograph on the same wall.

But obviously, not everyone at this gym - or any gym - is an elite athlete. And since 2010, more than 1,700 new people with a host of physical ailments have been sent to the Fitness Connection under its Physician Referred Exercise Program. Brittany Raupp, the PREP coordinator, added that more than 200 local doctors have sent patients to the program with a prescription to exercise as part of their recoveries.

And doctors can actually fill out a simple, pre-printed prescription form that includes a checklist of the five PREP specializations - "lifestyle management; diabetes management; heart health; cancer survivorship; and (preparation) for surgery." The other side of the prescription explains the details of PREP to patients in question-and-answer form:

Briefly, it lasts 60 days, costs $60, includes two sessions each week with a "medical fitness specialist" - plus unlimited use of the gym during the rest of those two months in PREP. Memberships are not covered by medical insurance.

There are more details, but doctors don't have to use that formal PREP prescription - they also can fill out their orders on one of their own prescription pads or skip the paper entirely and make the referral directly online, adds Brian Archut, a PREP fitness coordinator.

When new clients come into the Fitness Connection, the staff checks blood pressure, weight and other key numbers. And the staff then coaches patients through the areas their doctors specified - and is trained to monitor their progress and health as they exercise, Willson adds.

Phil Trotter, from the Indianapolis-based ACSM, emphasizes that Inspira is hardly alone among health-care companies in operating its own fitness facilities. That's a trend, and it's growing across the country.

AtlantiCare, for one, opened its 59,000-square-foot LifeCenter in Egg Harbor Township in 2005 - with about a third of that space taken up by doctors' offices, says Bruce Heon, the LifeCenter's executive director. The full-scale gym has swimming pools and offers about 70 group classes per week and many other services, he adds.

The center works with an advisory committee of AtlantiCare doctors and also provides doctors with pre-printed prescription forms, Heon adds. It has a program called "60 for 60" - also a 60-day introductory period at the gym for $60 - and is working this year to be formally certified by the national Medical Fitness Association.

For now, the Fitness Connection in Vineland is one of only two facilities in New Jersey listed as certified by the Medical Fitness Association. The other is in Voorhees, in Camden County.

Trotter, from the ACSM, says there's a reason the Fitness Connection has those credentials, and his group made it the national pilot for Exercise is Medicine.

"They were chosen because of the track record they have for being able to work with physicians," said Trotter. "They have taken the trouble to establish those relationships. ... That doesn't just naturally exist."

Trotter adds that while he sees this gym in Vineland as a national leader - "A shining example of what (Exercise is Medicine) is intended to do" - that trend of combining the two will only continue to grow. That's partly because of national health policy, including the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

"The way you're going to reduce the total cost of care - and there's a real push to reduce readmissions and length of stay (in hospitals) - is to limit medical encounters that are so expensive," Trotter said. "You put patients in less intensive and less expensive (programs) that ultimately reduce the cost of medical care. That's in effect what the Fitness Connection is doing."

Paul Cooper, the retired president of South Jersey Health Systems, remembers when what's now the Fitness Connection - with 3,000 or so members - was an underused indoor tennis club with a bar just inside the front door. The former SJHS, which owned the hospitals in Bridgeton, Elmer, Millville and Vineland, bought the building and started converting it into a gym in the 1980s.

"It was all part of the philosophy that we were trying to get people to change their lifestyles. It started out as a small cardiac-rehab (program) but grew to what it is now," said Cooper, who's a Fitness Connection member himself - he tries to work out three days per week.

But Wanda Bennett, the breast cancer patient, makes it a point to get in there five days per week, sometimes twice per day. She likes what PREP and the staff at her gym have done for her health and her outlook on her disease - and her life.

Bennett saw a brochure for PREP in her oncologist's office and asked about it, "And she said, 'It would be totally perfect for you,'" Bennett reports. "It's just a mind-blowing thing, what the physical can do for the mental."

One benefit of the Fitness Connection for her is that it has introduced her to several new friends who understand the fight she's fighting. They understand because they're in the middle of their own major health battles.

"When I came in here, I was like the walking dead," said George Campbell, 52, of Vineland, who also works out five days per week to recover from a "major stroke" early last year. He came out with his left side basically paralyzed and went through months of therapy before he got the recommendation for the next step in his recovery.

"I need to come to this gym here, so I can get my strength back," says Campbell, who is still out on disability, and still struggles a bit with his speech after the stroke. "I look at it like it's my job to come here and get healthy. ... When my PREP program was over, I came back and told them, 'I want to sign up for a year.'"

In one recent triumph, he got his doctor's OK to drive again, Campbell added happily.

Another workout buddy is Ron McDonald, 66, of Millville, whose health troubles in the past four years included a heart attack that was followed the next year by a throat-cancer diagnosis.

He lost about 80 pounds, down to 170, which could have been good - except he also lost most of his strength. He credits the staff at his favorite gym for helping him get it back.

"They know their machines, they know how to guide you, and they care. They really do care," says McDonald, who is on the pastoral staff at his Millville church. "They're concerned about people. They really try to watch what you're doing and advance you through, in stages."

Bennett also believes in the people she works out with, and the people who help them. That's why she's so glad she got a doctor's orders to head to the gym.

"A prescription that gets your life in order was the best thing that could ever happen to me," she said. "I think it should be done all over - a prescription to heal your mind, body and soul."

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237

For more information

The Inspira Fitness Connection is located at 1430 W. Sherman Ave., Vineland. Memberships start

at $45 per month. For more

information, call 856-696-3924

FitnessConnection