Dozens of residents young and old traded their boots for sneakers this past weekend for Homer’s inaugural Walk with a Doc event, a localization of an international program.
Led by Dr. Rob Downey, a functional medicine provider and chief of staff at South Peninsula Hospital, about 35 people made laps around Homer’s new South Peninsula Athletic and Recreation Center on Saturday, Oct. 7. They talked with Downey about their health, in particular blood pressure, which was the topic of the day, while getting exercise that is sometimes hard to come by during Alaska’s dark winter months.
Walk with a Doc was launched in 2005 by Dr. David Sabgir, a cardiologist in Columbus, Ohio who was frustrated with the challenges of encouraging changes in his patient’s behavior in a traditional clinical setting.
Sabgir invited his patients to join him on a walk in a local park, and the movement began. There are now walks with docs in more than 300 locations around the country and globe, something Bonita Banks, the community health and wellness coordinator for South Peninsula Hospital, was aware of and wanted to bring to Homer for two years.
“As a community educator, I have all these programs that I try to keep on top of,” Banks said. “So then a year ago I finally reached out to Walk with a Doc, and they were super excited. They were just starting one in Valdez, and there is one in Anchorage.”
For now, the walks will happen once a month on the first Saturday, though Banks would eventually like to expand the program to twice a month. Each walk will feature a different doctor and a difference health topic.
At Saturday’s inaugural walk, a registered nurse was also on hand giving free blood pressure readings since that was the day’s main topic.
“It just combines so many aspects,” Banks said. “We’ve got the doctor giving health information, we’ve got people socializing, we’ve got people doing preventative health care for themselves and maybe building a new routine around walking.”
Of all the factors in getting the program up and running in Homer, finding physicians to participate was not one of the challenges, Banks said. Doctors from South Peninsula Hospital have been very receptive and even stop her in the hallway to ask about getting involved with the program.
Downey said it was a no-brainer given his experience in functional medicine. Banks asked him to champion the program, which he said he agreed to as long as multiple doctors could lead the actual walks.
“Exercise is one of the big five,” Downey said. “Exercise, sleep, social support, food and stress management are the big five for health.” “… Today we’re talking about high blood pressure, but exercise decreases heart attack and stroke risk, decreases cancer risk, help’s people’s mood, helps people sleep, decreases their weight, on and on, you name it.”
One big advantage of the program is that walking is accessible to people of a wide range of abilities, Downey said, in that it doesn’t require money or fancy equipment and that it’s simple to do.
“Humans are built to walk,” he said. “So there’s a real elegance to walking and in some ways it gets overlooked.”
The recent opening of the SPARC building proved perfect for Banks’ plan for Walk with a Doc. Before that, she wasn’t sure exactly where the program could be held in town.
“I didn’t know where we were going to walk, because I wanted someplace that was safe, accessible for all abilities, warm in the winter. So then when SPARC was happening, I timed starting Walk with a Doc with when this would be ready, so we’ve been in close communication about it.”
At Monday night’s Homer City Council Meeting, SPARC Executive Director Bailey Lowney gave a presentation on the building’s opening to council members. Walk with a Doc was one of the first public events to be held in the new facility, which Lowney said has already seen use by several groups like youth hockey and soccer teams.
“It’s toddlers to seniors,” she said. “It’s truly a community space.”
Volunteers started building SPARC about a year ago, and Lowney said it’s been a huge community effort since then. With it opening just ahead of the winter season, Lowney said SPARC will also offer morning and afternoon walking sessions. She said this will provide a place for people to go to avoid the dark and icy conditions that might keep them from walking otherwise.
“A bunch of my patients drop off their exercise in the winter in Homer,” Downey said, saying they cite uneven footing.
In the coming months, SPARC will offer indoor soccer leagues, the walking sessions, parent and child open play time, ultimate frisbee, dodgeball and dry land practices for hockey.
For more information on programs and opportunities at SPARC, visit sparchomer.org.