Every morning at home, Dr. Mary Eldridge starts her day with mindful meditation.
At work, Eldridge, a lipid specialist whose office is at 1400 75th St., keeps a pair of walking shoes ready for breaks during which she can get in a quick walk.
Daily meditation and exercise are just two of the tools that Eldridge utilizes in her personal and professional commitment to wholeness and health.
Practicing what she preaches, this Sunday Eldridge invites the community to join her in Walk with a Doc, a new series of monthly walks and conversations about health.
Each month, she will host sessions from noon to 1 p.m. at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s outdoor track at 39th Avenue and 12th Street. Following a brief discussion about a health topic, walkers will walk at their own pace around the track.
“Education, socialization and exercise” are key components of the program, says Eldridge.
The walks are part of a nationwide Walk with a Doc initiative in place since 2005.
Eldridge got on board with Walk with a Doc after attending Scientific Sessions hosted by the American Heart Association in Chicago last November. During the sessions, presenters rolled out Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, second edition, and suggested ways children, youth and adults could meet these guidelines.
The guidelines suggest increased exercise for everyone, even those as young as 3 years old, and presented new findings regarding short- and long-term benefits of exercise.
“Following the guidelines will decrease your chances of dying from a heart attack or stroke or developing diabetes,” she said.
Acknowledging that exercise can be a hard sell for physicians to suggest to their patients, conference presenters showcased a national community engagement program called Walk with a Doc. With 499 chapters in 48 states in the U.S. and 28 countries, the initiative invites medical providers to get out and about in their communities through regular walking and talking events.
Eldridge was struck by “the amazing impact” that the programs have had around the country, and discovered that while there were nine chapters in Wisconsin, there were none yet in Kenosha. Eldridge then set about organizing a Kenosha chapter of Walk with a Doc and secured walking space at UW-Parkside.
Starting this Sunday, each walk will kick off with a five-to-10-minute presentation by Eldridge on a health topic. She’ll introduce the benefits of physical activity and present information on nutrition, smoking cessation, pre-diabetes, cholesterol and new studies from medical journals.
After that, everyone can begin walking around the track at their own pace for the duration of the hour.
“I’m not going to be taking the place of a person’s physician, but I may be able help him or her gain the courage and confidence to be able to speak to their doctor about things they have questions about or wonder about,” she said.
Emphasizing the importance of exercise, she said, “We now know exercise will lower your chances of developing even more cancers than we knew of before and will lower your chances of issues with many other aspects of health, including mental health.”
Exercise in general, notes Eldridge, decreases the pain of osteoarthritis, reduces disease progression associated with high blood pressure and type II diabetes and has positive effects on the brain. “It also reduces anxiety and depression and helps people who already have dementia, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s,” she said.
While it is easy to suggest that American get more exercise, not everyone does, especially children, says Eldridge. “Kids are suffering from a lack of exercise because many spend as much as seven and a half hours during the day on ‘non-school’ screen time.”
Those hours, notes Eldridge, are chances for kids to get up and moving, Eldridge said.
And for Eldridge, walking is a perfect fit to help children and adults get into the swing of exercise.
“Walking is aerobic; we want people to get in those steps at a moderate amount of vigor,” she said. “What’s neat about walking is that it’s accessible. People don’t need special equipment, a membership to a gym; they just need to know that what they’re doing now has long-term benefits.”
Walk with a Doc also complements Eldridge’s mission as a physician, a four-prong approach to wellness she calls “The Best Life Wisconsin S.E.L.F Program.” The acronym stands for stress management, eating right, lifestyle choices and fitness.
The community aspect of the program is also exciting, said Eldridge.
“Walk with a Doc is so much more than just exercise. It’s really an opportunity for people to gather together; it’s about health education and social connection.”
To facilitate that connection, Eldridge will walk in the opposite direction as participants so she can meet up with people along the way.
“In order for people to follow (the new exercise guidelines), we have to come together as a community,” Eldridge said. “We have to each play a role in the betterment of the health of our homes.”
Information reported on the Walk with a Doc website notes that a majority of those who have participated in walks are increasing their exercise and enjoy the educational aspects of the program.
Physician participation makes Walk with a Doc especially effective, says Rachael Habash, national spokesperson for Walk with a Doc. “Dr. Francis Peabody said, ‘The secret in caring for the patient, is caring for the patient.’ There’s no better way to show someone you care about him or her than showing up outside the office to listen and walk with them.”
Eldridge says that inclement weather, such as rain, will not cancel the event or deter her from doing the walks, which are scheduled at the Parkside track through October. Come winter, however, she hopes to have an indoor venue in place.
“This once-a-month physical activity is not meant to replace all other physical activities,” notes Eldridge. “However, I hope that after people hear (about the benefits), they just decide to stand up, go outside and walk!”