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Published on September 02, 2015

I started walking. And then look what happened

I started walking. And then look what happened

When I was practicing cardiology in Washington, D.C., I had to balance a fulltime job in one of the most demanding cardiology hospitals in the country while raising two young children with my husband.189

I always had been an outdoors person, but I was not exercising nearly enough. I knew I had to get back in shape for my job, my family and myself.

I had been a runner, but given my limited time, I decided to begin walking. At first, it was just for short distances after getting the kids of to school. Soon, though, I was walking every day even if it rained or snowed. I discovered new trails around the city.

As I walked, I found myself entering a different state of mind. It was a life-altering, spiritual experience. Soon, I was in the best shape of my life, not only physically, but also mentally.

It was surprising to realize that walking was the equal to running. In fact, it was proving better since I rarely suffered strained muscles or joint aches.

My husband soon joined me. He had been working out religiously at the gym, but had to slow down after a stress fracture from an elliptical machine. He quickly fell in love with walking as well.

It was great to have a walking partner.

Walking now is an essential part of my life, and it has deeply influenced my approach to being a cardiologist.

In Washington, I started an informal walking group with people I met—not necessarily patients. Many were single moms who were suffering from stress and sometimes depression. I begged them to join me at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and East-West Highway every day at an appointed hour.

That experience made me think: How can I get people engaged in their own physical and spiritual health?

When I moved to Austin, Texas, I decided to create a more formal walking program. The environment there was wonderful. Warm weather most of the year, beautiful scenery and flat, open spaces. Even the sidewalks were new and broad.

Every Saturday morning, I would set up a location with water and coffee to encourage people to walk. I would check everyone’s blood pressure and weight as well.

Within a year and a half, we had 200 walkers regularly participating. I would invite guest physicians to join us each weekend. We recruited local businesses, from Starbucks to pharmacies. They would provide everything from coffee (decaffeinated) to water bottles and pedometers.

I measured a two-mile distance and drew sayings on the sidewalk every quarter mile such as “My favorite color is…” Walkers would report in and tell me what I had written to prove they had completed the distances.

It all added to the fun.

The town manager got involved and began promoting the walking program at the local Rotary Club. Then he bolted permanent metal markers into the sidewalk to replace my chalked sayings.

That gesture was one of the most thrilling things that ever happened to me as a physician. It was a true community collaboration around a healthier lifestyle.

The town manager had lost about 75 pounds after a mid-life scare. Now he was a big biking enthusiast.

I was no longer “that crazy lady.” The local cardiologist had become a community organizer. The radio station and newspaper wrote stories about the program.

I began asking different businesses to support the walking program by setting up prizes for those achieving personal goals. There were t-shirts and free lunches at a local cafe whose owner had a degree in nutrition science. That partnership tied exercise with healthy eating.

For most of the walkers, prizes were soon incidental. Like me, walking was becoming an essential part of their lives.

Along the way, we discovered numerous people who were suffering from high blood pressure and did not know it. Some became my patients. My medical group in Austin built a walking trail in a park behind the heart hospital.

When I was recruited by Cape Cod Healthcare, I was very excited to come here. But, I must admit, I felt very sad leaving behind the walking program along with all the friends and colleagues I met through healthy exercise.

Then came Healthy Parks, Healthy People, Cape Cod Healthcare’s partnership with the Cape Cod National Seashore. It was right up my alley!

I’m delighted to be the lead representative in this initiative, and since we launched the program in late June, dozens of people have begun regular exercise programs while enjoying the outdoors.

Have you discovered Healthy Parks, Healthy People? I can’t imagine a more beautiful place than Cape Cod to walk for your health.

About Dr. Elissa Thompson: In addition to her role as Medical Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation at Cape Cod Hospital, Dr. Elissa Thompson, is also the Medical Director of the Healthy Parks, Healthy People project, a partnership of Cape Cod national Seashore and Cape Cod Healthcare.