The two doctors, both in their 70s, share their secrets to active and healthy lifestyles.
Last spring, Dr. Steven Gabbe was celebrating 50 years of living with diabetes when he decided to challenge the audience attending the JDRF Promise Ball. Removing his tuxedo jacket as he was joined by his trainer onstage in the ballroom of the Ohio Union, Gabbe proceeded to do 50 pushups in front of an audience dressed in formal attire.
When he was finished, the audience roared. Steve Gabbe’s challenge worked: 50 people immediately agreed to donate $1,000 each, so that the Gabbes’ cumulative $50,000 pledge to JDRF would be matched, dollar-for-dollar, raising a total of $100,000 for the local JDRF chapter. (The Gabbes had previously contributed $30,000 to JDRF and added an additional $20,000 that evening, making their total lifetime contribution of at least $50,000.)
Steve Gabbe’s performance that evening made many wonder: how do Pat and Steve Gabbe stay so healthy? I decided to meet them at their home near Bexley to try to figure this out. When I inquired about scheduling a meeting, the Gabbes suggested 9 a.m. on a Sunday. Weekdays are too busy, they explained.
Pat, a pediatrician, is a clinical professor of pediatrics at the Ohio State University and also the founder of Moms2Be, a local program that provides direct support to expectant and new mothers in low-income areas. Steve, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes during his third year of medical school, works as an obstetrician-gynecologist at OSU, and was the CEO of the Wexner Medical Center at OSU from 2008 to 2015.
The couple’s plans on the Sunday we meet are with Greg Greenzalis, who owns a personal training company called Superform in addition to The Pilates Studio, on East Main Street, in Bexley. Every Sunday morning, and Wednesday mornings at 5 a.m., the Gabbes walk from their home down the street to train with Greenzalis.
As the couple prepares to start their workout with Greenzalis, Steve hands him two fitness-related articles to read. This is not uncommon; Steve is always researching the benefits of exercise, especially for older adults. The topics of the day are the advantage of continuous repetition of one exercise and another article on athletes and aging. Greenzalis smiles as he receives the articles. This has become a regular occurrence that he looks forward to, he says.
The Gabbes are a smart and curious couple, always learning something new and passing along their knowledge to others. Steve’s medical focus is on high-risk maternal fetal medicine, which includes expectant mothers with existing diabetic conditions and those who develop gestational diabetes while pregnant.
“I partner with my patients and always ask them what questions they have,” he says, explaining that diabetes is a complex illness and controlling it can be challenging. He encourages patients to keep a notebook of questions between appointments so they do not forget to ask him.
Five years ago, mutual friends introduced the Gabbes to Greenzalis, and they have been regular clients ever since. In fact, they proudly tell me they have probably only missed a handful of their twice-weekly sessions during this time.
Steve uses his iPhone to connect to the studio’s speaker system so that they can listen to a playlist from the 1970s and 1980s. He shares that one of his friends paid for medical school by being a studio musician in Los Angeles—one thing to know about the Gabbes is that they are full of interesting stories, as their careers have afforded them the opportunity to live across the country practicing medicine.
Their workout starts, and I am immediately impressed.
I am 32, and while in decent shape, I can do maybe five standard pushups on a good day. I watch in awe as the Gabbes—both in their 70s and still working full-time—do 100 pushups before they hit the halfway mark of their training session.
Pat wears a pearl necklace to the training session. She says the pearls were her grandmother’s, and she finds that they help her enjoy the workout more. She also wears bright lipstick, a empowering look I have since adopted for my own exercise routines.
Greenzalis asks the Gabbes to do a cardio warmup before starting the workout. Pat is caring for a sore hip, so she opts for the elliptical, which is low impact, while Steve chooses a brisk walk on the treadmill. They move on to dynamic stretching, and Steve passes the time chatting about the OSU football game against Tulane. Pat chimes in, referring to Steve’s “smooth moves” as he does the grapevine stretch, moving both feet in front of and behind each other while traveling horizontally.
Pat shares that the best part of their training has been the positive results. She confides that she has not lost much weight, but that’s because muscle weighs more than fat. She says her clothing fits much better and she loves that her arms are stronger. During the 100-pushup challenge, Pat and Steve take turns, each encouraging the other to stay strong and not give up. I can hear Pat counting to herself during the pushups. Greg laughs, saying, “She keeps me accountable.”
After so many pushups, Greenzalis says it is important for the Gabbes to stretch their chests, so they head to the TRX, a suspension system rigged to the ceiling that allows for body weight exercises using two straps. As Pat works through her stretches, Steve watches closely, cheering her on: “Way to go, Pat.”
The Pilates Studio has several machines called Power Plates in the open fitness room. The Gabbes do step-ups on the machines while holding hand weights. Power Plates use a technology called PrecisionWave, which activates the body’s natural reflexive response to vibration. Greenzalis sets the vibration speed to between 25 to 50 times per second, which causes the Gabbes’ muscles to work harder than they would if they were just doing floor exercises with the same hand weights.
The Gabbes groan when Greenzalis announces it is time for what he calls the “rotisserie.” They know what that means. They move to mats on the floor and begin a series of side planks, rotating from one side to the other as a rotisserie would rotate cooking food. “Superman” is next, which involves lying on their stomachs with arms outstretched, then lifting their arms and legs off the mat. Both of these stretches are meant to increase core strength, explains Greenzalis.
As the Gabbes work through their routine this morning, Greenzalis offers encouragement and reminds them of proper form, to prevent injuries. He suggests that Pat use a foam roller on her hip between exercises, knowing she is struggling with what seems to be mild tendinitis. He also checks in with Steve about his sugar level, which is easy to track on the insulin pump Steve wears. “It’s 143, which is perfect” for a workout, says Steve. Just in case he gets too low, he brings along a small bottle of orange juice and glucose tablets to every session.
They move on to pull-downs, which are facilitated by a different machine with weights. They pull the straps down while sitting on an exercise (or medicine) ball, working their arms and legs. Steve moves onto “round boys,” stretching with the TRX. Pull-apart stretches during this time focus on the triceps.
The couple finishes their workout with mat exercises. Greenzalis and Pat have an interesting exchange when she claims they have never done a certain move. “Yes, we have, Pat,” says Greenzalis, laughing.
He asks the Gabbes to cool down with several yoga poses. Pat says she appreciates the accountability that sessions with Greenzalis offers to them.
“I can’t do this by myself,” she says. “I need a professional.” She says she was trying to create her own routines prior to hiring a personal trainer but was not making any progress. Greenzalis helped Pat and Steve learn basics from the beginning, including how to lift weights.
“I have seen a night and day difference from the beginning,” says Greenzalis, of the progress the Gabbes have made since they started their training with him five years ago.
The couple has also made a commitment to eating healthy. Pat explains that they eat a mostly pescatarian diet, which includes fish as the main protein, as well as a lot of vegetables and fruit. They have not completely eliminated red meat, but it is rare in their diet.
Nutrition is a critical consideration for Steve as he manages his diabetes on a daily basis.
He discusses food facts with his medical students to make sure they understand, for example, how many carbohydrates are in a pancake breakfast from McDonalds. “They need to know so they can educate their patients,” he explains.
During the week, Pat and Steve each enjoy oatmeal, Cheerios and milk, or a granola bar for a quick breakfast. They tend to eat lighter lunches, such as soup and salad, and then a larger dinner when they are back at home together. Pat says she learned how to create Mediterranean-style dishes from her grandmother, who was Italian. In addition to fish and vegetables, they also enjoy other seafood, chicken and avocados, which include healthy fat, she explains.
On this particular September morning back at their home, Pat prepares egg white omelets with vegetables while Steve and I chat at the table. She slices smoked salmon to top the omelets and shares a big bowl of fruit, as well.
The couple admits they do not eat a lot of dessert. Instead, they have identified other foods they have started treating as dessert, such as peanuts and fruit.
On the Go
The Gabbes travel often, both for business and pleasure. Pat’s mother is nearing 100 years old and still lives in Oregon, where Pat grew up, so they visit her as much as possible. “We worry we will lose our conditioning when we are on vacation, so we walk, bike, go on hikes and use weights if we can,” says Steve.
Their focus is not just on physical health; they feel staying active is important for mental health, too. Pat and Steve love to be outside whenever possible. “For me, nature is critically important for calming,” says Pat. “It reduces stress to walk in nature. There is actually a small discipline of bio-psycho-social medicine with research proving this.”
One of their favorite outdoor activities is Pelotonia, the annual bike race benefiting the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center—Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. They ride a tandem bicycle and have participated every year since the inaugural event. (Steve proudly points out that there are only a dozen tandems among the approximately 8,000 riders each year.) Whether they are working out with Greenzalis or pedaling the Pelotonia course, the Gabbes rely on encouragement from each other to stay strong. “Without Pat this year, I would have thrown in the towel,” says Steve.
The Gabbes are also focused on educating the community on healthy living. Before coming to Columbus in 2009, they lived in Nashville and worked for Vanderbilt Medical Center. While in Tennessee, Pat was involved in infant mortality prevention. (Infant mortality is defined as the death of a baby before the age of 1.)
When they moved to Ohio, she was shocked to learn that the infant mortality rate in Ohio was worse than it was in Tennessee. After working with former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland on the topic, she wrote and received a grant to work through OSU to address this problem in Columbus’ neighborhoods.
The grant funding focused first on Weinland Park, near campus, and was originally intended to be a 10-week nutrition course for neighborhood residents. This work became what is now known as Moms2Be, founded by Pat and her colleague, Twinkle French Schottke, an infant mental health specialist and the current program director. Prenatal and first-year-of-life care is now available weekly in five different neighborhoods, and it is a free service for everyone who attends.
Clients have access to doctors, nurses, dieticians, lactation counselors, social workers, educators, community health workers and health professional students. Topics include family planning, prenatal care, breastfeeding education, child development and safe sleep, just to name a few. Because nutrition is so important for everyone—parents and children—a healthy meal is served at the close of every Moms2Be gathering. Pat attends two gatherings a week, and Steve typically joins her on Thursdays at the University Hospital East location. The Gabbes have a true partnership—whether they are working out with Greenzalis or educating community members on healthy living.
The couple’s commitment to their health, especially as they age, is having an impact on those around them. The recently renamed Gabbe Health and Wellness Program at the Wexner Medical Center offers a wealth of programming to staff, including cooking classes, meditation, organized walks and a faculty athletic group. There are dedicated staff members tasked with planning meaningful group activities so employees stay involved and active.
The Gabbe family has been inspired by their commitment to staying active and healthy, as well. When their children come to visit—three out of four live on the West Coast—they join the Gabbes at their workouts with Greenzalis.
“Our son goes to a gym in Los Angeles now,” says Pat. “He doesn’t want to be shown up by his parents in their 70s,” she adds, laughing.