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Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - 2:37am

Ga. Physician Assistants: 'Take A Hike'

Updated: 1 year ago.
The “Rx for Fitness” program opens the door for Georgia’s physician assistants to talk about diet, nutrition and changing habits with their patients. The PAs encourage them to get some kind of exercise by walking, hiking, swimming or even kayaking and they write a prescription that’s good for free entry to any of Georgia’s state parks – like Sweetwater Creek State Park in Lithia Springs (above) – to do it. (Photo by Joshua Stewart.)

Some of Georgia’s physician assistants are actually telling their patients to take a hike – and giving them a free pass to one of Georgia’s state parks to do it.

The PAs actually writes a prescription that – through a partnership with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources and the Arthur Blank Foundation – waives the $5 per car parking fee at any of the state’s parks, recreation areas or historic sites.

“It opens the door [and] allows us the opportunity to talk to them about obesity, about health, about health risk,” said Mary Vacala, an orthopedic PA in Savannah and past president of the Georgia Association of Physician Assistants. The program was her brainchild.

“Oftentimes, patients are coming to see me about their knee problems, their ankle problems, and it’s a perfect opportunity to talk to patients about working out, about getting in shape,” Vacala said.

She said patients are often reluctant to have a conversation about losing weight or getting fit. But the “Rx for Fitness” program opens the door to talk about diet, nutrition and changing habits.

Of course, Vacala has heard the excuses, too. She said the first thing patients will say is that they are not a member of a gym or they can’t afford it. Giving them the park pass eliminates that excuse and also shows them new ways to get fit.

“Not everybody wants to go to a gym. Not everybody wants to be sweating indoors. And not a lot of people want to be lifting weights, so this is an opportunity for them to get,” Vacala said. “Every state park offers different opportunities.”

Nearly 3 in 10 Georgians are obese, according to federal and state health data, and the number has been climbing in the last two decades. However, Vacala said her program is for anyone who needs more physical activity in their life.

The program is entering its second year, but already Vacala estimated she alone has handed out about 1,000 prescriptions. She did not know how many had actually been used or how many other PAs are actively writing them, though she said at least several hundred GAPA members are already on board. The association’s leadership will push the program again at the group’s biannual meeting in July.

“[When people walk in a state park], it’s a changing environment,” Vacala said. “All of a sudden they’ve walked a mile, two miles, three miles and didn’t even feel like they did it.”

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