A prescription for health on the yoga mat

PITTSBURGH — Dr. Natalie Gentile stands in an exercise studio in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, leading a workout class as soothing music plays and images of Pittsburgh flow on a massive screen.

“Inhale, up dog, tops of the feet flat,” she says, confidently shepherding the students through yoga poses and strength exercises. The class this month was part of a series of pop-up events promoting a wellness center that Gentile plans to open in Pittsburgh early next year.

The wellness center will be located in the same building as a new office of Gentile’s medical practice, Direct Care Physicians of Pittsburgh, representing the seamless connection that Gentile hopes to draw between wellness and primary care medicine.

Often in primary care medicine, a doctor tells patients who are pre-diabetic or have other health risks that they need to make lifestyle changes, such as exercising more or eating more healthfully — and that’s where it ends. Without more encouragement or tools, the patients often have difficulty following through, Gentile said.

“What I found myself doing with patients, I found myself getting on the floor with them doing planks, talking about cooking tofu,” she said. “It was just how I practiced medicine.”

She plans to expand that in-office advice with the new wellness center. She is calling it Rebel Wellness, a nod to her complicated relationship with the “wellness” industry.

“I’ve been involved in the wellness industry knowing or not knowing it for the majority of my life — always into fitness, playing sports, diet, what we were eating in our home, what I should and should not be eating was always on my mind,” she said. “I struggled with disordered eating for many years.”

With her patients, she finds herself continually debunking myths about wellness. Some patients come to her with an all-or-nothing mentality about diet and exercise, she said, believing that if they are not adhering to restrictive diets or highly regimented exercise routines, it’s not worth trying at all. Others come in with the attitude that their body is broken, looking for solutions in supplements and medications. And some just have the mentality that certain foods or certain body types are bad or shameful.

“We called it Rebel Wellness because it’s rebelling against the typical norm that we see in the wellness industry,” she said.

With the new studio, she hopes to spread that mindset not just to her patients but also to the community at large. In addition to fitness classes such as yoga, strength training and group fitness, Rebel Wellness also will have two seats in every class reserved for people who pay whatever they can afford — part of Gentile’s effort to remove barriers for people to access fitness. It also will host cooking and nutrition classes in a teaching kitchen and other workshops such as mindfulness groups. The facility will have offices for three different types of therapists, she said.

Gentile, who is board certified in lifestyle medicine and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, also will continue some of her efforts to expand access to wellness medicine. She leads the Highland Park chapter of “Walk with a Doc,” which meets at the Highland Park fountain the first Friday of each month at 10 a.m. She also recently started a YouTube channel focused on plant-based food tips and recipes and at-home workouts.

She hopes all the medical wellness knowledge will culminate into Rebel Wellness. “I always thought I’d have a wellness center,” she said. “I wanted something that really got back to the basics of what I was teaching my patients and I wanted the space to do it.”