January 16, 2019

Walking the Talk

Intermountain Healthcare Launches New “Walk With A Doc” Community Fitness Program

By Marianne Hamilton


Although he doesn’t know it, Dr. David Sabgir has many friends in St. George. He’s never actually been to Utah’s Dixie, but the Columbus, Ohio-based cardiologist—and his international nonprofit organization, Walk With A Doc (WWAD)—have touched a steadily increasing number of residents in this corner of the state. As word is spreading about the benefits of participating in WWAD, now being offered monthly by Intermountain Healthcare, Sabgir’s network of friends in southern Utah is sure to swell still further.

At the end of 2004, Sabgir was facing a dilemma. As a cardiology resident at the Ohio State University Medical Center, he was seeing far too many patients. It wasn’t the workload that distressed Sabgir. Rather, it was the preponderance of people in his community who were living decidedly unhealthy lifestyles. “Cardiovascular disease is 80 percent preventable,” Sabgir notes. “I was overwhelmed by the fact that the majority of people I was treating weren’t really doing anything significant to take care of themselves. We’d have these half-hour discussions about what they needed to do, but I realized that I was totally ineffective at creating any sort of long-term change.”

Thinking creatively, the young physician devised a seemingly brilliant strategy: If he could convince his patients to meet with him face-to-face in a non-threatening, non-medical environment, they might be more receptive to his advice. “My kids were little then, and I wanted to be outside with them. I asked my patients if they’d be willing to meet me at the park and go for a walk. If they had questions about their health, I told them I’d be glad to talk to them while we walked,” Sabgir says. His idea was enthusiastically received. For his first WWAD outing in January of 2005, over 100 community members laced up their shoes and joined Sabgir at a local park. “It was pretty magical; people really rallied around the idea,” he recalls. “We were very fortunate and very blessed from the start.”

Mostly through word of mouth, Walk With A Doc quickly exploded beyond Ohio and then beyond the US. Today, the organization now boasts 442 chapters across the globe. Most groups meet monthly or twice each month, and roughly 25 percent meet weekly. In Sabgir’s estimation, it matters little how often a chapter walks as long as its members commit to regular movement. Says Sabgir, “In our monthly newsletter, we talk about the ‘100 Reasons to Walk,’ and we ask people to shoot for 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. Walking can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by 50 percent and anxiety and depression by 47 percent. Plus, self-esteem goes way up, and there’s the whole socialization aspect. I would say that camaraderie is the ‘secret ingredient’ in Walk With A Doc.” Such was the case in November of last year when Dr. Rhett Frei led Intermountain Healthcare’s new WWAD chapter out for its inaugural walk. Frei, a family and sports physician and osteopath, discovered the WWAD website while doing some online medical research. Since Frei works closely with the hospital’s LiVe Well Center, he immediately saw the synergies between WWAD and the LiVe Well staff’s mission. “I thought it would be a great complement to what we do—having a community event that encourages walking, and promotes the idea of people being physically active,” Frei confirms. “I approached the management here, and they agreed that it was a terrific idea. Now we have a ‘co-branded’ program with Intermountain Healthcare and Walk With A Doc.”

The first of the local chapter’s walks, which commence at 11 a.m. on the third Friday of each month, drew 30+ locals of all ages and physical abilities. Along with those who walk regularly, the group included former hospital food and beverage staffer Mary Bray and her friend, Marty Lupear. Bray is dealing with more than her share of physical issues: Not only has she twice endured bilateral knee-replacement, she’s also been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and depends on a cane for balance and support. Though Bray’s pace is slower than that of her WWAD colleagues, she remains cheerfully determined to cover the 2-mile loop around the hospital, one step at a time. “The grounds here are so wonderful. I used to come out and walk here on my lunch hour,” Bray says. “When Marty told me about Walk With A Doc, I thought, ‘I gotta try this.’ I’m looking forward to meeting new people and doing these walks each month.”

Watching her group head out, Christy Lawson, administrative assistant at the LiVe Well Center, expresses excitement about the future of WWAD. “The thing that I love the most about this program is that it’s a group of people doing something to better their lives,” Lawson says. “Exercise is always good. And the fact that we can get people of all different backgrounds to interact with each other? It’s just awesome.” Adds Frei, “Sometimes people don’t know where to start with a fitness program or what to do. No matter how old or inactive someone may be, we hope they’ll come out to interact with the people here, encourage each other, and promote the idea of being physically active.”

For more information about Walk With A Doc in St. George, visit https://walkwithadoc.org/our-locations/imh-stgeorge/ or call (435) 251-3793.

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