DENVER, COLORADO - These days, Mary Halpin loves to walk.
“This walking has just given me life, you know?" she says. "To be in the air, and not to be an old lady at home, sitting in a recliner.”
Six years ago, a serious disease made it impossible for the Denver retiree to walk much at all, even with her special, wheeled walker.
'Walk with a Doc'
But Halpin is now back to exercising, thanks to a program called, “Walk with a Doc.”
“I could walk maybe half a block,” she says. “Now I can walk, without having to stop and take a long break, depending upon the block, it can be between 10 and 12 city blocks.”
Denver’s Walk with a Doc program is part of a nationwide exercise effort in 60 other cities in 20 states.
Cardiologist Andrew Freeman, who organizes the free walks in Denver, has seen many cases of lung and heart disease improve with exercise and looks at Walk with a Doc as a great way for medical professionals to ‘walk the talk’ about good health.
“We started about two years ago and only had about 20 people show up. Now we’re up to about 100 or more, depending on where we do it and when we do it,” he says. “There are no copays [patient costs] and it’s a fun day in an effort to show people that exercise can be medicine.”
'Walk the talk'
Several other health professionals leave their white coats behind for the morning walk.
"We’re trying to break down barriers and make it so that a patient can find their doctor," Freeman says. "Talk to them informally and then watch them practice what they preach.”
The walks are held at least once a month in various parks around Denver. They start with free health screenings, including blood pressure readings and lung capacity checks.
There’s a brief talk about how to treat asthma and a stretching class. Then, when everyone starts to walk, Freeman encourages them to do it briskly.
“You want to be short of breath, sweating, if it’s warm enough and unable to complete a sentence," he says. "That’s how you know you’re working hard enough. But check with your doctor first, obviously.”
Not everyone walks fast, but they do walk, and all have good reasons to be here.
“I have high blood pressure and my doctor said come do this and get myself a little more fit than I am right now,” said one man.
“I started this in March," says a woman participant, "and since then I’ve lost two and a half [dress] sizes, just by walking.”
“Everyone seems to be passing us by," says Diane Kinsella, walking at a slower pace with husband Bill. "But we’re walking still, so that’s the important part.”
After a 30-minute circle around the park, the Kinsellas join walkers who’ve stopped to socialize, while others continue on for another round. Diane says this may be enough for now. Her husband had open heart surgery just two months ago, so she’s glad he’s doing well and that real doctors are walking with them this morning.
“I would like not to come back to this if my husband’s heart health would improve, and that’s our goal," she says. "So that we can walk just on our own, and we won’t have to always monitor his heart. He’ll be heart healthy all the time.”
Doctor Freeman says the program really does help people grow stronger, and become more confident about exercising. He hopes these supervised outings motivate participants to eventually walk more than 150 minutes every week.
“The goal here again is to really help people understand that exercise is the best, freest and most effective medicine for almost any condition,” he says.
And it’s worked for many of these participants, who say they’re walking a lot more often these days. That includes Mary Halpin, with her wheeled walker.
“Every time I come, I find myself stronger. I’m walking more," she says. "If I go to the grocery store, I’ll do more turns around the grocery store, I deliberately go up and down aisles. I do anything to keep moving. I don’t feel almost 75. I feel as good as I did when I was 50.”
That's why Halpin says she’ll be back next month, to walk with a doc.