Overweight patients are being encouraged to take a walk, if not a hike. A unique collaboration between the Georgia Association of Physician Assistants (GAPA)...

RxFitnessPadOverweight patients are being encouraged to take a walk, if not a hike.

A unique collaboration between the Georgia Association of Physician Assistants (GAPA) and Georgia State Parks seeks to promote physical fitness in a fresh-air way.

For a day trip to one of Georgia’s state parks, there’s normally a $5 parking fee. But nowadays, physician assistants in the state can hand out “Rx For Fitness” prescriptions that allow that charge to be waived.

Will park visitors find a canyon trail more exhilarating than a stationary treadmill? “That’s the hope,” says Kim Hatcher, a spokeswoman for the Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites. “The state park is a perfect diversion from a neighborhood sidewalk.”

Physician assistants are licensed and authorized by the state to practice medicine with the supervision of a licensed physician. Georgia PAs, like other health care providers, are concerned about the statewide obesity rate and fitness levels.

Overall, almost 30 percent of adult Georgians were obese in 2010, according to CDC.

Barbara Burk, a PA from North Georgia, says she’s written more than 200 prescriptions for hiking over the past 12 months. “It’s a good way to get people out, and we all have to start somewhere,” she says. “Your age or ability doesn’t matter — almost everyone can enjoy walking.”

A staircase in the great outdoors

Amicalola Falls. Photo from Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites

Amicalola Falls. Photo from Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites

“The most enthusiastic participant for walking in our parks has to be Jack Fussell,” Burk says.

Fussell, 62, of Talking Rock, says he chose the park stairs at Amicalola Falls State Park to lose more than 100 pounds, which he now credits with saving his life. Amicalola Falls is the highest waterfall in Georgia, and the park, near Dawsonville, has 1,208 stairs (round trip).

Mary Vacala, GAPA’s past president, was determined to help make a difference in patients’ fitness. “GAPA was in good shape,” she said, “but I couldn’t say the same for many orthopedic patients I see in Savannah.”

She started thinking about a “Commit to Get Fit” campaign slogan that she and her board members were planning. Ironically, they were contacted by the state park people about the same time. An orthopedic PA for more than 25 years, Vacala knew the state park Rx For Fitness program was an opportunity to start a conversation with her patients about the importance of weight and wellness.

“People often come into our office with knee and hip problems,” she says, but in many cases they are not thinking about being overweight as the root of their pain.

Major problems brought on by excess weight include diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. “Those can kill you,” notes Vacala. “But the orthopedic troubles tend to make those problems even worse. People who are too heavy don’t enjoy any type of movement, and every pound adds more stress to their painful joints.”

As one of 11 children, Vacala learned to eat quickly, and not too much, at a young age. “I’m known for my ‘push-away’ exercise rule,” she says. “Push away from the table is the best advice I can give someone who’s too heavy.”

Vacala has always enjoyed exercise in the form of walking, running and experiencing the great outdoors. When exercise is fun, studies suggest that people tend to stick with a plan. She can attest to that from her own experience.

And outdoor exercise is not just for lone fitness buffs. “Another benefit to this walking program,” says Georgia State Parks Director Becky Kelley, “is being able to take your friends and family along.”

There’s even a program for exercising your dog. The Georgia Veterinarian Medical Association and Georgia State Parks collaborated on the Pet Rxercise program.

Like people, dogs that begin a regular exercise program should go slowly at first, gradually trying to increase their walking time, speed and distance.

Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites cover more than 77,500 acres of natural beauty, with more than 500 miles of trails. In April, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources announced an award of $1.66 million in new grants for Georgia trails. These projects will provide the public added places for walking, running, riding and paddling.

“Our state’s enthusiasm for hitting the trails and paddling the rivers is growing,” says Kelley.

Fussell, meanwhile, has taken exercise a step further. He’s now running from Savannah to Monterey, Calif., to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s disease.


Judi Kanne, a registered nurse and freelance writer, combines her nursing and journalism backgrounds to write about public health. She lives in Atlanta.

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