Most Wednesdays during the summer, you can find Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, M.D., at the head of a pack of lunchtime walkers around Capitol Hill. Walking is key to her initiatives to promote health and fitness, and she regularly leads walks in Washington, D.C., and around the country. We asked Dr. Benjamin about her enthusiasm for walking – and her experience with arthritis.
Why are you such a big advocate of walking?
Exercising and walking for physical and mental health benefits is part of my Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation. Anybody can do it without extra equipment. You don’t have to walk fast; you can do what we call a “soul stroll” with friends. If you’re in a wheelchair, you can roll with your friends; just keep moving is the idea – and the basis of it is joy and fun.
How is it enjoyable for you?
It gets you outside, gets you to see things. My first year as surgeon general a friend asked me to join her to walk the Grand Canyon. It’s just beautiful, and it made me appreciate our national parks. If I can do it, anybody can do it. I call it my “journey to joy in health care” – find whatever brings you joy and health.
What is your experience with arthritis?
I tore my meniscus last spring (2012), and an X-ray showed early signs of osteoarthritis. At first, it was very painful and the knee was swollen so it was really hard to walk. But as it improved, I noticed that walking helped. It gave me a better appreciation of what my patients with arthritis are going through every day.
Tell us about your proposed Call to Action on Walking.
We will release it later this year (2013). We received public input, now scientists are pulling the science together. The document is basically the science to support walking. In the meantime, we’re teaming up with about 100 organizations and calling it the Surgeon’s General’s EveryBody Walks! Collaborative, and we’re encouraging others to join us. We hope to get faith-based communities and cities and counties and states to walk with us – just get everybody enjoying being out walking.
Might the Arthritis Foundation’s Walk With Ease program have a role in the call to action?
I think it would have a wonderful role. We want to get everyone moving. That’s a population that could benefit, and the program is already there, so I would love for it to be part of our initiative and we would love to be part of it.
Do you believe your experience might affect how arthritis issues are addressed in public health arenas?
I’m a family physician, so I’ve been treating arthritis all of my career and seeing the challenges and limitations that patients deal with. I came into this job being an advocate. I will continue to speak about it to raise awareness with policy makers, but we also need other voices to echo it.
What is your focus as surgeon general?
I chair the National Prevention Council, and I believe it’s better to prevent illness than to treat it. We’re trying to change the focus of our health care system from sickness and disease to wellness and prevention. The things we can do to help prevent arthritis, we need to be doing them – having young people continue to exercise to prevent the onset of arthritis; and for those who have arthritis, prevent it from progressing as much as we can, and help people to live better with the disease. Health doesn’t occur in the doctor’s office and hospitals only. Making health a part of everything we do is where movement and activity comes in – and making it a part of whom we are so we keep doing it, because we look at it in a positive, fun way.