Every Saturday morning, a small group of New Haven residents walk together for an hour on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail to get fit and make friends. Volunteer medical residents accompany the walkers, providing them a chance to ask medical questions and discuss health problems for free.

The weekly “Walk ’n Talk Walking Group” is a Yale New Haven Hospital initiative that began last September and continued past its original June end date thanks to high interest from community members. Medical residents have signed up to participate through the end of the month, and the hospital plans to continue the program as long as interest remains high, said Gina Smith, community health improvement coordinator for Yale New Haven Health. She said similar programs, which will be run by city health officials, are also being planned for Hamden and Woodbridge.

“I do it because it makes me feel good, it gets me out of bed on Saturday and I look forward to it because it’s fun,” said Robyn Odei-Ntiri, a New Haven city employee who attends the walks with her co-worker Tracey Hill.

The women heard about the walk through their wellness program at work and found it so beneficial that they continued walking after the program ended for the season last year. The two women stopped only when the weather made the trails unwalkable, said Hill, and they have also started biking together after the walk and cooking healthy meals to take to work.

Hill added that she appreciates having doctors come into the community to meet residents.

Marsha-Gail Davis, a medical resident at YNHH, said she attends the walks because she believes the mission of a physician is to prevent disease and promote health. Encouraging healthy behavior is critical, she said, especially given the rise of health problems such as obesity and diabetes in the U.S. She said urban environments frequently have high concentrations of fast food restaurants which promote unhealthy behaviors.

This is true in New Haven, as Andrew Orefice — the program coordinator for community relations at YNNH — said New Haven has health disparities which are directly related to the social determinants of health, which includes things like income and educational disparities.

Orefice said he hopes the walks will help promote and spread a culture of health as the canal trail is an often underutilized physical asset for the Elm City community. He added that the medical residents allow participants to speak with health care providers in an informal setting that is free of hierarchy.

Davis said the health disparities between minority and Caucasian communities are also notable and getting larger, which she said are often driven by socio-economic inequality. Investing in prevention in communities where there is less access to health care is especially important, Davis said.

The walks take place on a trail in Newhallville, a neighborhood that has higher incidences of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure than either the national or New Haven average, according to a 2009 DataHaven survey.

The Farmington Canal Heritage trail was completed in 1835.

Sara Tabin sara.tabin@yale.edu