Doctor’s Orders: Get Outdoors

“So Melody, as we finish our check-up today, I have one more thing to tell you about,” Dr. Karen Sadler said as she pulled her stool closer to the examination table where 8-year-old Melody Salhudin sat, legs dangling over the edge.

You know, you come here when you’re sick and need medicine, but you know you also come to the pediatrician so we can help you stay healthy. And part of staying healthy is being active,” Dr. Salder explained as she reached for a glossy brochure and a special prescription pad. On it, she wrote a prescription for Melody to get outside and exercise.

Melody Salhudin hits the swings during a break from her walk (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Melody Salhudin hits the swings during a break from her walk (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

It’s part of a program called Outdoors RX  – a partnership between the Appalachian Mountain Club and Massachusetts General Hospital. It’s funded by three foundations for one year, with a budget of $200,000. The two venerable organizations are testing the idea of having doctors write prescriptions for outdoor exercise in two communities with high rates of childhood obesity, Waltham and Framingham.

Melody, a quick study, got the point. “To help people stay strong and healthy and to make sure they get up and get their body like grooving and moving,” Melody said, giggling and twisting her hips.

The Appalachian Mountain Club isn’t known for Melody’s style of moving and grooving.

“Originally we thought of hiking or biking,” and other more traditional AMC activities, said Pam Hess, who runs Outdoors RX. But Hess soon realized that many kids in these communities are not used to, or even comfortable, spending time outdoors.

So when Melody and other patients go to the program’s website they can sign up for nature storytelling, arts and crafts in a park and family games.

“This is a yearlong program,” Hess explained. “There’ll be winter activities, whether it’s winter tracking, or in summertime we’ll be getting down and doing micro-hikes so you don’t need a lot of space to do it.”

Dr. Karen Sadler introduces 8-year-old Melody Salhudin to Outdoors RX (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Dr. Karen Sadler introduces 8-year-old Melody Salhudin to Outdoors RX (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Micro-hikes? AMC, the mountaineering conservation group, is promoting something called micro-hikes?

“That’s pretty much looking down at your feet, so even an area as small as inside of a hula hoop. You can look for different colors, different shapes, different sizes of things,” she explained, smiling. “You can discover a whole new world using your imagination.”

Hiking inside a hula hoop. If that’s what it takes to get kids outdoors, Hess said, the AMC will do it.

Dr. Sadler, who practices at both Newton Wellesley Hospital and Mass. General, said she jumped at the chance to participate. She has spent years talking to patients about staying healthy, but she never felt like the message made it home.

“If a prescription takes a set of words and makes it more concrete,” Sadler said. “Then I think the weight of this message is every bit as important as the Amoxicillin you write for their ear infections.”

It’s too early to tell what percentage of kids will fill their “get outdoors” prescription.

“Work your legs out, baby, we gotta walk,” called Melody’s mother, Mary Salhudin, as Melody turned onto a paved path that loops around Cushing Memorial Park in Framingham. Melody’s mom, dad, sister and nephew all joined her on a clear, chilly Saturday morning for an AMC event that filled Melody’s prescription.

The kids raced up a hill covered in fall leaves, compared needles from different evergreen trees and dragged their parents to a playground just inside the loop. This was part of Dr. Sadler’s grand plan: Use Melody to get the whole family out and moving. And it worked.

Melody Salhudin (right) leads her family on a walk through Cushing Park in Framingham (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Melody Salhudin (right) leads her family on a walk through Cushing Park in Framingham. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

“Got me out walking, because I wouldn’t be out here without her,” said Ibn Salhudin, Melody’s dad. “This is great, very refreshing!”

Salhudin had a heart attack two years ago and is supposed to walk 15 minutes a day. This quarter-mile loop is more exercise than anyone in the family has had in a long time, except Melody.

“We’re almost done, right?” asked Mary Salhudin, as the path took a turn.

Melody, who could see the end, ran back to her mom and asked if she could “around and around” 20 times.

“No, no,” her mom said. Not today.

Mary Salhudin redirected her daughter’s attention. “Who we going to call Monday?” she asked.

Melody paused. “Dr. Sadler,” she decided. “And tell her what?” her mom asked. “That we did the walk,” Melody said. “And what will Dr. Sadler say?”

“Good job, I’m proud of you,” Melody said with a shy smile. “It will make me feel happy and proud of myself.”

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