Muriel Bowser was sworn into office this past January and remains focused on delivering a fresh start for the District of Columbia (DC). Mayor Bowser, a native of Washington, pledges to tackle problems past mayors haven’t: chronic homelessness, economic divide and disappearing affordable housing. Engaging residents through community forums for their input and new ideas appear to be a long-term strategy for progress. One such initiative that caught my attention was the 1 Billion Steps Challenge (currently at 3 million), under the larger FitDC umbrella. The FitDC website serves as a resource and platform to engage residents on nutrition and fitness. Currently, ten coaches are in place to motivate residents to improve their health and well-being. I connected with Darryl Garrett, appointed the “Senior Coach” for older city residents (In 2013, individuals 65 and over comprised 11.3% of the population), and asked him a couple questions.
Let’s see the world of health and well-being from Darryl’s perspective.
Me: How did you end up doing the work that you’re currently doing? Describe your journey from your work in the federal government to your leadership in health coaching in the DC community.
Darryl Garrett: I spent 25 years at CIA and then took an early retirement at 48. I then worked for a couple of defense companies before becoming an independent consultant working inside the intelligence community (IC). I’ve been doing that for about 12 years and was wondering what to do with the last third of my life. I continue to enjoy the mission and people in the IC—it is more like a calling than a job—but thought it would be fun to do something different.
About four years ago I and my wife started working with a terrific trainer—Deshaye Tillman—and I became inspired by the transition that occurred as he helped people become healthier. So I started studying to be a personal trainer and applied and got into the third running of Georgetown University’s Health Coaching Certificate program. That program will end in September. Then I will see if I can start a business of health coaching, while continuing to work part time in the IC.
At about the time I was starting the health coaching program at Georgetown I saw a news story about DC Mayor Bowser’s FitDC initiative. I applied to be one of the community health coaches and was blessed to be picked as the FitDC coach representing seniors. It has been an absolute blast working with the FitDC team: it is a diverse and interesting group that mirrors the city, I think. And as an old CIA hand who avoided the public light, it has been an amazing experience going to photo shoots and getting my first Twitter account!
Me: What inspires you on a daily basis, especially when things get hard?
DG: I try to remember that it is not my life, but life and I am a part of it. I try to make the best of it but at the end of the day billions of people go to sleep without thinking about me and my problem at all. I am not the center of the universe. I also have several networks of friends and colleagues that I rely on for support.
And sometimes I drink a little bourbon and have some popcorn!
Me: What do you think it will take for our healthcare system to improve?
DG: I remember being on a consulting team for a large IT company that had several retired military flag officers. One of them was also a doctor and had been the Surgeon General for his branch of service. He once said something that stuck with me: “Everyone knows that the US medical system is broken. And no one wants to fix it because everyone knows how to make money from it.” I took that to mean that the system is so complicated that any reforms upsets the revenue flow, so there is some group or groups who will oppose almost any change.
So I don’t see that changing radically in the near future. However, estimates are that 60-70% of chronic diseases could be eliminated or at least controlled by lifestyle choices. Many of our most severe challenges—diabetes, obesity, cancer, smoking, high blood pressure—can be effectively combated with exercise, healthy eating and adhering to medication plans.
When I started training at 60 years old, my bio markers after a few months dropped into a normal range where they had not been since my late 30s. That is the power of exercising and eating healthy food.
Me: Why is holistic and community health so important?
DG: People often have the information on how to stay healthy or prevent a disease, and yet many people cannot do it. I think there are several reasons for this:
- People don’t like to feel they are being told to do something. They often get resistant.
- People know the large goal “exercise more” but struggle with breaking it into small, actionable steps.
- People start and encounter relapses, obstacles and challenges and give up.
- Once starting it is hard to continue something long term on your own.
So community health can help to break down these challenges. Health coaching can help a person visualize something that is powerful for him or her: so instead of “I need to exercise.” The vision is “I want to be able to play with my kids at the park like the other moms.” Setting a powerful vision of health helps a person relate why they are doing something new and perhaps difficult to something that is important to them.
Working with initiatives such as FitDC and other DC and community programs also make it easier to stick to a program. Hard programs can be made fun and having buddies give you a team to help you overcome obstacles, break down goals into small steps, and stick to a plan over the long term.
Me: What are the current needs in DC and where you live, as they relate to social determinants of health (i.e SES, poverty, access to care, transportation, safety, etc.)
DG: DC, like many cities, has areas of great access to healthcare and healthy food, and other areas where that access is a struggle. As a representative for the senior residents I know that some of them cannot drive and must rely on public transportation. While the city has a robust transportation system, it can be hard to carry many bags of groceries on a bus or metro…and relying on cabs can be expensive for some. Seniors sometimes can be challenged by navigating the healthcare system and understanding complex medication regimes, which can lead to poor adherence to treatment plans.
That is why I am proud to be part of an initiative that will help focus attention on the importance of moving and eating healthy. We currently have a Billion Step Challenge in which each ward has a community “Ward Walk”, and citizens are encouraged to log their steps each day. We hope to get to a billion steps in the next year.