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Meet a family doctor helping Nova Scotians move more

As a physician treating patients at both his family practice and the emergency department at Dartmouth General Hospital, family physician Dr. Peter Leighton sees firsthand how Nova Scotians could benefit from making exercise part of their daily lives.

“I see a lot of conditions that are preventable through lifestyle, both the chronic and the acute sides,” says Dr. Leighton, who has been practising medicine since 2018.

Dr. Peter LeightonBust the barriers
Cost, time and access to facilities or equipment are barriers for many people. Plus, starting exercise can be scary for someone who has been inactive for a long time, has had a health scare or is dealing with a chronic health condition like diabetes, high-blood pressure, cardiovascular disease or arthritis.

“People worry that exercise will flare their arthritis or increase their blood pressure,” Dr. Leighton says.

Specialized programs like cardiac rehab do exist for people who are already ill, but they aren’t available to Nova Scotians who are just looking to get active and don’t know where to start.

Lack of local resources
“There aren’t many resources in the community where patients will be seen by a professional who can manage chronic health issues and knows how to medically clear the patient for physical activity and monitor them appropriately.”

That’s what inspired Dr. Leighton to develop Personal Health Independence Training (PHIT). He partnered with physiotherapist Drew Stratton at Forte Physiotherapy in Halifax to offer the program.

Participants first have a physical to find out the level of intensity they can handle. Then they go in small groups that meet weekly for a 20 to 25-minute guided workout with physiotherapists at the clinic. Over the course of the 10-week program, participants do another two workouts each week at home, tracking their progress as they go.

Learning the basics
“It’s body weight and resistance band exercises, so it’s not daunting,” says Dr. Leighton. Participants learn about frequency, intensity and tempo so that as they get stronger, they can make it harder. “They learn the core skills for strengthening their body and improving balance, which will improve their longevity and quality of life.”

Once participants finish the program, they have the skills and confidence to continue working out at home. “In terms of behaviour change, that’s the most important thing,” said Dr. Leighton.

Making change stick
Regular exercise has other benefits, too. Research shows that engaging in physical activity three times per week works just as well as medication for mild to moderate depression and anxiety. “People become more active because they’re feeling better,” Dr. Leighton says. “They realize they’re improving, which makes them want to continue with it.”

The program costs $295, including HST and resistance band, though people with private health insurance can expense the cost as physiotherapy. Dr. Leighton says he hopes to receive provincial funding for the program, so more people can take part.

“I’m hopeful to see a shift in our approach to health care as well. Many conditions we see in our offices are preventable diseases and when you look into the amount of money that goes into prevention, it does not equal the costs for acute care or disease care.”

Focus on prevention
He’d like to see more focus on prevention and behavioural change in our communities. “There is a shift starting – Nova Scotia Health has started a primary support program for physical activity modules on behavioural change and motivational counselling, so there are good steps being made. I think we’re going to build up from there, it’ll just take time.”

Looking ahead, Dr. Leighton hopes to soon offer a virtual PHIT program that could serve patients across the province.

For now, he says the program’s biggest selling point is that it’s accessible for both people who are inactive and otherwise healthy and for those with chronic health problems like diabetes or high blood pressure. “Our goal is to eliminate barriers and get people going and show them that they can do it.”

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