For those who participate in the Walk with a Doc program, a walk in the park can become much more.

For the past two years, hundreds have gathered at local parks to join a health professional for a walk — taking advantage of an opportunity to get some exercise while chatting with a local physician.

What began as a grassroots effort has expanded across the United States, with Franciscan Health implementing the program systemwide in 2016. The program, which is open to the public, encourages healthy physical activity for people of all ages and ability levels, said Allison Armstrong, a community health specialist and coordinator and facilitator of the walks at Franciscan this year.

“It is beneficial in reversing the effects of a sedentary lifestyle and also serves as an opportunity for community members to connect with a medical professional in a different setting, ask questions and cultivate meaningful discussion,” she said.

Walk with a Doc was started in 2005 by Dr. David Sabgir, a cardiologist in Columbus, Ohio. Frustrated with his inability to effect behavior change in the clinical setting, he invited patients to go for a walk with him in a local park on a spring Saturday morning, according to the organization’s website.

For Michael Meska, director of respiratory therapy at Franciscan's Dyer, Hammond and Munster locations, leading a group allowed him to discuss topics relevant to the participants.

“For me, the discussions were a good collaboration and convergence of seeking answers to relevant, present-day health questions and concerns,” Meska said. “After exchanging some information about our work and life experiences, the walkers asked some related questions.”

Walks typically take place at a public park or space with a walking path, Armstrong said. The current session, which runs through mid-June, takes place at Wicker Memorial Park in Highland. A 10-week session kicks off Aug. 23 at the Lake County Fairgrounds in Crown Point.

Walks are scheduled for an hour, starting with a short talk by the leader, but participants are welcome to continue after that, Armstrong said.

“The walks have helped to create a sense of community in a shared common goal of leading a healthier life,” she said. “After listening and conversing with one of our docs or staff members and walking for as long as one cares to, all individuals come out of that hour as a more physically active, connected and informed member of the community.”

Topics addressed at each walk cover a spectrum of health conditions.

Amy Pleasant, wellness supervisor for Franciscan WELLCARE, led a session that focused on prediabetes and diabetes.

“They asked a lot of great questions related to the topic of prediabetes, and I was able to stay for a bit after the walk to discuss with one of the community members his experiences with prediabetes,” she said. “I was glad I was able to answer their questions and provide further information. I was happy to help, but I will admit, it was equally as rewarding for me.”

For more information on locations, visit walkwithadoc.org/our-locations/franciscanhealth.

For more information on Franciscan Health’s program, visit franciscanhealth.org/news-and-events/events/walk-doc-highland.