It all started with one frustrated doctor and one uncooperative patient.
One of the most successful walking programs in the country was born in Columbus out of frustration.
Cardiologist David Sabgir had been working with an at-risk patient for years, warning of the dangers of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and a sedentary lifestyle while preaching the benefits of diet and exercise.
“Each time, I'd really think I had reached through to this patient,” says Sabgir. “I told my attending physician at OSU, ‘Wait until this person comes back. They'll be a new person.' And nothing would have changed. I finally said, ‘How about if my family and I joined you for a walk at the park?'”
It was the winter of 2004, and by the time the weather turned to something more conducive to walking for his patient with heart problems, word had spread around the office and among his other patients. “All of a sudden we were getting lots of calls,” Sabgir says.
When spring rolled around and Sabgir was ready for that first walk at Sharon Woods Metro Park, there were more than 100 others who joined the walk, too. “From the reaction of our patients, we realized we were onto something smarter and greater than we were,” Sabgir says.
The Walk with a Doc program was born, Sabgir says, “out of frustration at my own inability to motivate my patients to become more physically active.”
Since that first walk around Sharon Woods, the program has grown to 370 individual Walk with a Doc chapters in 46 states and 21 countries. Last year close to 200,000 people participated in a Walk with a Doc, and every Friday morning, Sabgir sends out a Walk with a Doc newsletter to anyone who's interested, reinforcing the benefits of healthy activity and diet with tips and insights, which he still writes himself. “That's how I spend my Thursday nights, with a Diet Mountain Dew, typing.” That newsletter now goes out to more than 20,000 people every week.
Locally, Mount Carmel provides many of the physicians who lead walks (Sabgir now practices at St. Ann's Hospital in the Mount Carmel system), though others, like dietitians from Ohio State University, also participate. The city of Columbus sponsors four weekly Walk with a Doc programs, on the north, south, east and west sides of town. Phil Hanson, the city's Walking Programs manager, reports that about 150 people participate in one of the four walks every week. Sabgir himself still leads a weekly walk on Saturdays at Highbanks Metro Park. There also are chapters in Upper Arlington, Hilliard, Dublin, Newark and Marysville. All the walks are free and open to everyone.
A 2017 survey of 244 Walk with a Doc participants in Ohio and Texas funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that respondents increased their daily activity, walking more than 10,000 steps on average, or 5 miles, daily. They also reported an increase in their health knowledge and claimed joy in meeting new people and motivation from being in the company of others. Three-fourths of the respondents were women, and 60 percent were 60 years of age or older.
The physicians surveyed also reported benefits, in their case a satisfaction in engaging with patients. The vast majority (86 percent) reported feeling like they personally connect with the walkers.
“It's filled a need that was missing in the field of medicine, where doctors have been reduced to spending no more than 15 minutes with a patient,” Sabgir says. “It's a very unique feeling to be engaging with patients outside of the sterile walls, with no time limit.”
“And while we're very happy with the success of the program, we also believe the walk is nowhere near its potential,” Sabgir says. “Something like 95 to 98 percent of people are not achieving their recommended activity rates. I believe we're making a difference, but if we reached close to 200,000 people last year, and there are 330 million in the U.S., it's a pretty small percentage. We'd like to be at 3,700 chapters, not 370. But we also should take the time to smell the flowers. There's really a miracle in walking and being active, and we're hearing great stories from the program every day.” walkwithadoc.org, 614-714-0407