Carson Boone used to take three types of medication for high blood pressure, and he needed a mechanical breathing aid to sleep.
Though Boone had a gym membership and considered himself pretty active as an 82-year-old, his doctor thought that if Boone sweated a little bit more, he would realize substantial health gains.
So, Dr. Ben Fischer convinced Boone to join a special exercise and healthy-living program at the YMCA in Raleigh, N.C., where the doctor works out alongside his patients.
"A person of my age can be a little frightened about how much you can do," Boone said. "But I found out through this program I was not working hard enough. On my first gym visit with the doctor, he told me to go around the track at my normal speed. Pretty soon, I noticed somebody was walking beside me. It was Dr. Fischer saying: 'Carson, you need to pick it up.'"
Boone did, and he now has better health as a result.
"I sleep better, and I think I'm stronger, too," said the retired construction contractor and photographer. He's cut out two of the blood-pressure medications and no longer uses the nighttime breathing device, and he said he has reduced his medical costs by half.
Doctors across the nation have stepped up recommendations to patients to lose weight, change their diets and exercise. But Fischer, 41, is unusual in working out side-by-side with patients.
"It's a little weird, I know, but it's fun for me," he said. "How often does a doctor get a chance to get into the pool with patients? And if I'm not there, they won't take it as seriously."
The sessions are billed as office visits, but Fischer thinks they are more beneficial.
"It's much more productive and useful than a typical office visit," he said.
Fischer started the program three years ago, after seeing how many of his patients were suffering from "lifestyle diseases" such as high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
Because these are health problems we "bring on ourselves," opportunities exist also to address them ourselves, said Fischer.
That's what he had in mind when he came up with the idea of pairing supervised exercise with information on nutrition, fitness and lifestyle habits.
"It's my homegrown attempt to help people be healthy," he said. "I tell them it's either this or they're going to be treating chronic illness for the rest of their lives."
About 65 people have participated in the project over the past three years, each signing on for a three-month session of weekly workouts and information seminars. The Y donates weekly meeting space and waives membership fees for patients in the program. Fischer encourages the participants to return to the gym for additional workouts throughout the week.
"I've learned a lot about diabetes, arthritis, liver function, blood pressure, heart disease," said John Logan, 61, as he prepared for an aerobic workout. "When you hear about all the problems and diseases you can have, how can you not afford to get in shape?"
So far, Logan has lost more than 10 pounds and trimmed his waist by 2 inches. He said he hopes to get rid of his cholesterol medication soon.
Boone agreed that joining Fischer's program has been worth the extra effort. He's already lost 13 pounds.
"Having a doctor who will take off his clothes and put on gym shorts to work with you is a real plus," he said. "It made me more confident that I could do this."