Western Pa. wellness centers embrace unconventional direction

| Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, 11:18 p.m.

Melissa Migliaro said she almost had an out-of-body experience when she first saw it, this earthy patch of rustic calm amid the commercial sprawl of suburban Peters.

Diminutive statues of St. Francis and Buddha watch over a pond strewn with lily pads, beside a two-story, wood-paneled building that evokes a scaled-down mountain lodge.

Inside, Migliaro imagined turning the 3,900-square-foot space — the former Changing Seasons center — into a holistic health hub. She envisioned cooking and yoga classes, spiritual talks and a vibrant community gathering spot.

“I thought: ‘How can I not do this? Think of all the people who could be affected,' ” said Migliaro, 33, of Mt. Lebanon, who quit her outreach job in a chiropractic office and established the Metamorphosis wellness center last summer near McMurray Road. “I'm really teaching people that it's more than one thing that makes you well.”

A year in, she estimates 200 people a month attend culinary, fitness, financial and related classes at Metamorphosis, most hosted by a couple dozen vendors and independent business partners.

As Migliaro refines her business plan, industry observers say the one-stop approach joins a growing number of for-profit community centers nationwide that stress natural, preventive philosophies for physical and emotional health.

Several have taken root across the Pittsburgh area in the past few years.

“Somebody's got to get people thinking outside the box, and not about just the normal pain management, to get through the day. Life should be about much more than that,” said Edwin Amrhein, 33, of Portersville, a co-owner of Evolve Wellness Center in Zelienople. Open about two years, the facility counts around 100 clients a week for chiropractic services, yoga, belly dancing and other events.

“There's nothing crazy going on here. This is all tried and true,” Amrhein said. “We're not going out on any crazy limbs of alternative medicine and trying to claim things we can't claim.”

Such unconventional wellness centers are picking up speed as many Americans worry over the expense of more traditional health care and try to avoid illnesses before they start, said Mary Jo Kreitzer, a nursing professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

“Eighty percent of how healthy people are has nothing to do with doctors, hospitals and drugs — what we think of as the health care system. It has to do with lifestyle choices and behaviors that people have,” said Kreitzer, who runs the school's Center for Spirituality and Healing.

“How people exercise, what they eat, how much they sleep is very tied to their health care outcomes.”

She said a key challenge for wellness centers is to develop sustainable financial models for the longer term. While few statistics illustrate the precise growth in the sector, industry data show that firms providing some manner of wellness services should increase to 10,406 nationwide by 2016, said Brandan Hardie, executive director at the National Wellness Institute in Stevens Point, Wis.

That would reflect a nearly 10 percent increase over several years.

The Nuin Center in Highland Park, which opened 19 years ago, focuses on helping people through personal transitions, manager Heather Kropf said.

“It's quiet. It's peaceful. It feels like a little oasis in the city,” she said. “It's a little different, maybe, from other wellness centers.”

One of the newest centers in Western Pennsylvania, Avani Institute in McMurray, opened about nine months ago with workshops ranging from nutrition to meditation and stress therapy.

“I have an idea about what direction it's going to go. But as people come through the door, they'll decide the direction it really is going to go. It's what the need is in the community,” said director and founder Karen Shanahan, 63, of Upper St. Clair.

For Luise Caster, 52, of Bethel Park, the yoga classes at Metamorphosis are restorative.

“I'm at the point in my life where my kids are grown, and I'm saying, ‘Hey — what can I do for myself?' ” Caster said, who lost 20 pounds after working with a holistic health coach. “I always leave there feeling somewhat rejuvenated.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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