Putting in laps at Duniway Park. In the dark. Not your normal doctor’s visit. But in recent months several dozen runners could be found circling the Southwest Portland park’s track. Led by Dr. James Beckerman, Providence’s Heart to Start running group has helped participants train for 5k and 10k races since 2012 and promotes exercise as a prescription for a heart-healthy lifestyle.

“One of our biggest gaps in health care is lifestyle,” says Beckerman, a cardiologist at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. “We all know we’re supposed to exercise, but it’s kind of tacked on at the end: ‘You need a mammogram—oh, and eat your vegetables and exercise.’”

A graduate of Harvard Med, Beckerman says he was planning to be a psychiatrist until his father-in-law suffered a heart attack on a family camping trip. Unable to save him, Beckerman became a cardiologist to help others with cardiac disease—which of late means encouraging them to fend off the diagnosis with fitness. After years of prescribing exercise, Beckerman wanted to give patients a place to practice it. He and some colleagues came up with a 12-week training plan, found a track—and, wonder of wonders, people came. The group has since grown from a faithful few to more than 50.

Inspired by the program’s success, Beckerman, author of The Flex Diet, released a new book in January: Heart to Start: The Eight-Week Exercise Prescription to Live Longer, Beat Heart Disease, and Run Your Best Race is peppered with his experience and personal stories from many members of the running group.

“I think that in search of six-pack abs, or whatever the current cultural definition is of beauty, people lose the real benefits of being active,” Beckerman says. “The book is really meant to speak to those people who just want to be healthy. And it turns out that ‘those people’ is most of us.”

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