Here’s a look at the metro’s top physicians, as selected by their peers. We spoke to several about the keys to a long, healthy life.


By David Hodes 

Move your body as if your life depends on it – because it does.

Well, here we are: a new year and the same old you standing there, looking in the mirror and pondering a personal resolution revolution—getting ready to tackle new fitness goals. Starting, well, really soon.

Most of us will have one particular goal in mind this new year: a better, stronger, healthier, happier you. 

In fact, vowing to exercise more, eat healthier and lose weight were the top three New Year’s resolutions in the U.S. in 2022, according to the Statista Global Consumer Survey. 

Most doctors tell their patients that exercise should be part of their daily routine. Why?

When you exercise, you sleep better. When you exercise, you’re able to organize tasks better. Exercise can reduce depression, anxiety and the risk of dementia. It can even reduce complications from surgery.

Exercise is your new medicine. Researchers are even saying that exercise should be considered a psychoactive drug, with “dosing” defined as the volume and intensity of exercise. Your doctor can be your cheerleader and guide for getting started, especially if your doctor has their own exercise regimen that goes beyond just a few jumping jacks after lunch. 

Photo courtesy of University of Kansas Hospital.

Exhibit A on the benefits of working out: Dr. Nicole Yedlinsky, a family medicine doctor at the University of Kansas Hospital. She has a background in sports medicine University of Kansas Hospital. and is an ultramarathon runner currently training for a 50-kilometer (31-mile) race in January. “I don’t care if you hula hoop, I don’t care if you jump rope—I just want you to move,” she tells patients. “I want you to get your heart rate up. I want to get your body sweating a little bit. Any bit of physical activity helps.”

Photo courtesy of University of Kansas Hospital.

“Exercise can really help treat diseases and produce better outcomes,” says Dr. Jeffrey Holzbeierlein, a urology oncologist at the University of Kansas Hospital.  Like Yedlinsky, he practices what he preaches, too. He exercises with a running group three to four times a week and lifts weights the other two to three days. “There might be certain groups of people that even benefit more from exercise,” he says. “That’s something we’re continuing to explore.” 

Holzbeierlein has patients do a “prehab” routine when they are going to have a urology-related surgery. “We know that a patient might have to have chemotherapy or they might have to have some other treatment,” Holzbeierlein says. “We start working before that and start getting them their goals of exercise.” 

Holzbeierlein ran a trial where he gave Garmin devices that tracked steps to all his patients, with goals on how many steps a day they were to do. “What we found was that patients who were able to achieve those goals got out of the hospital faster, had faster recoveries and had less complications with their surgery.”

One of the things that happens with surgery or chemo, or when a patient is fighting a disease, is that the body is using more energy, Holzbeierlein says. “It’s using more protein, and the muscles are breaking down. Exercise is the attempt to maintain that muscle and maintain that mass.”

Photography courtesy of University of Kansas Hospital.

Cardiologist Dr. Charles Porter, also with the University of Kansas Health System, says that research keeps revealing more exercise benefits for both physical and mental health. “I’s been recognized in the last couple of years that in muscle contraction, skeletal muscle cells send out little signals that talk to other cells,” Porter says. “And these cells can cross the blood-brain barrier and impact neurotransmitters in the brain. So the association of exercise and cognitive function is increasingly evident,” Porter says. “It’s not just the runner’s high.”

Competitive bodybuilder and University of Kansas Hospital cardiovascular nurse Elizabeth Hart agrees that exercise has been a big benefit to her mental health. “Not only did I see physical benefits, such as my cholesterol got better, my blood pressure got better and all of those things that you would expect from exercise,” says Hart, who is a busy new mom. “But I also noticed a shift in my mental health. I had more self-confidence, especially during that hard time as a new mom.” Hart continues strength training about four times a week, doing cardio work and yoga as well. Her advice is to “prioritize your mental health.”

“I don’t think that we talk about it enough as providers,” Hart says. “It’s a huge part of just being healthy. We’re not just focusing on the body. We’re focusing on the mind, too.”

Physical activity is 1.5 times more effective at reducing mild to moderate symptoms of depression, psychological stress and anxiety than medication or cognitive behavior therapy, according to a study by Dr. Ben Singh published in the September 2023 edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine. One of the first large studies to focus on the connection between mental health and physical activity, its finding “underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety.” 

It also doesn’t take weeks or months to see positive health changes from exercise, according to a physical activity report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A single bout of moderate to vigorous physical activity will reduce blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, improve sleep, reduce anxiety symptoms and improve cognition on the day that it is performed.

Yedlinsky says that she likes patients to start with five to 10 minutes of exercise. “If they can, say, eat dinner and then go for a five minute walk, or eat lunch and then go for a five minute walk, or wake up a little bit early in the morning, put some clothes on and do some type of physical activity,” that’s a good way to start, she says. “I sometimes ask people, how much time do you spend watching TV? How much time do you spend on social media or on your phones? Is there a way to balance that time you spend on those more sedentary activities and substitute them with something that’s going to be good for your body, good for your brain, good for your heart, good for your gut? Exercise, along with excellent sleep and attention to nutrition, are the three things that have the most bang for your buck in terms of getting not just years of life but quality of life, too.”

Do Your Jumping Jacks

Here are six identified benefits of exercise in almost every area of physical and mental well-being, according  to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

  • Improved bone health and weight status for children ages three through five years
  • Improved cognitive function for youth ages six to 13 years
  • Reduced risk of cancer
  • Brain health benefits, including possible improved cognitive function, reduced anxiety and depression risk, improved sleep and quality of life
  • For older adults, reduced risk of fall-related injuries
  • For people with various chronic medical conditions, reduced risk of all-cause and disease-specific mortality, improved physical function and improved quality of life
Be Proactive

Preventable chronic disease and physical activity

About half of all American adults—that’s around 117 million people—have one or more preventable chronic diseases, Alex Azar, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, wrote in a letter that was published in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition.

Seven of the 10 most common chronic diseases—including arthritis, asthma and diabetes—are favorably influenced by regular physical activity, and yet nearly 80 percent of adults are not meeting the key guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity. Only about half meet the key guidelines for aerobic physical activity. This lack of physical activity is linked to approximately $117 billion in annual health care costs and about 10 percent of premature mortality, according to Azar.

Don’t Stop

Here are some simple ways to maintain exercise’s health benefits, according to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

  • Adults should do at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity, or 75 minutes to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.

  • Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.

  • Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups two or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.

Sweet Dreams

By Hampton Stevens / Photography by Zach Bauman

We talked to a sleep doctor who says the best version of yourself begins with a good night’s rest.

Dr. Abid Bhat will put you to sleep. Literally. Not because he’s boring. Quite the contrary. He’s an engaging man, lively and quick to laugh. Bhat will put you to sleep because you want it. Because you need it. Because your body falls apart without it, and because Bhat is passionately committed to his work. 

That passion radiates off him. It’s evident when we meet on a wet winter afternoon at his office in southern Shawnee, in the squat, stucco-coated building that houses his Sweet Sleep Studio. He is a professor at the UMKC School of Medicine and a member of Your Wellness Connection, a collective of medical and therapeutic professionals offering alternative treatments like acupuncture, chiropractic and massage therapy, along with traditional Western medicine. The place is charming and fragrant. There’s an aura of care and attention to detail. 

“Twenty-five years ago, 1998, I came to this country,” he tells me. His voice bounces with the lilting accent of his native Kashmir, a contested area between India and Pakistan. 

Buffalo was his first stop, and Bhat shudders to remember the winters there. He moved to Kansas City in 2006, but not before a change in career. Sleep, he explains, was not his first love. He began his practice as a pulmonary critical care doctor. 

“So I deal with patients who are very sick in the ICU, okay?” he says. “But what I found was every time I step into the clinic, every patient, literally every patient, has some sleep issues.”

The light bulb moment, he says, came when he helped a man go to bed with his wife. That’s not a euphemism.  

“A patient came to me with a history of heart failure,” he says. “The wife said that they hadn’t shared the same bedroom in ten years. His snoring was too loud.” 

Helping him, Bhat says, didn’t just give the man better heart health—it changed the trajectory of his marriage. It was a gift of love, and Bhat saw a new path. 

After a fellowship in Sleep Medicine from the University at Buffalo, Bhat moved to KC, later tacking on an MBA from the Bloch School. In the nearly two decades since, he has provided medical care to people with various sleep disorders. 

He is adamant that he is not a “snoring doctor,” sounding a bit disdainful of the idea. There are 70 different sleep disorders, he notes, and he treats them all. One of the fascinating things about his practice, in fact, is how wide-ranging it is. For so many doctors, medicine has grown ever more specialized. They just do elbows, knees or noses. For Bhat, medicine is deep and broad in scope—holistic, even.

“That’s my differentiation from the other doctors in this town,” he says. “I blend Western medicine and holistic medicine. They both have a place. I have practiced Western medicine for 25 years. I see the limitations and I see the advantages.”

Good sleep, he says, is essential to preventing chronic ailments like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and a host of other disorders. Good sleep fights depression and memory loss, too, Bhat says. Yet, Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. 

“The CDC has declared sleep problems as an epidemic,” Bhat says. “Forty-five percent of people in this country complain about lack of sleep.”

Bhea and I talk about apnea and the health risks that come with it. We talk about nightmares and how psychologists under the clinic’s aegis can help. We talk about mattresses and white noise machines, about night sweats, menopause and restless legs syndrome. 

Bhat is very keen to call out the common misconception that people must spend a night in the clinic to be tested. The test can be done at home with a simple, small device you get on loan from the clinic.

He is also keen to say that he’s hesitant about prescribing sleep medications, especially drugs like Ambien. 

“There’s a known side effect of these medications that is so strange and dangerous, called parasomnia. It means that part of your brain is awake.” He tells of a woman who would go night shopping. She would get up, drive to the grocery store, shop for groceries, come home, get back in bed and find her bags the next morning, all with no recollection of leaving home. 

“I call sleep, good diet and exercise the three pillars of good health,” he says. “I see people go to the gym, I see people eating good food, but unfortunately they’re sleeping four hours a night. It’s like a three-leg stool. If you have only two legs, it’s going to fall down.”

There’s only one kind of falling Bhat wants you to do—and that’s into a restful slumber.

Top Sleeping Disorders

Sleep disorders are conditions that affect sleep quality, timing or duration and impact a person’s ability to properly function while they are awake. According to The Sleep Foundation, there are more than 100 specific sleep disorders.

Here are the most common:

  • Insomnia: an ongoing difficulty falling or remaining asleep
  • Sleep apnea: a breathing disorder that disrupts nighttime breathing
  • Narcolepsy: a condition that makes people feel excessively tired during the day despite having an adequate amount of sleep
  • Restless legs syndrome: a tingling or crawling sensation that creates an irresistible urge to move your legs
  • Parasomnias: a group of unusual sleep behaviors that can occur before falling asleep
  • Excessive sleepiness: a medical term that describes extreme grogginess occurring almost everyday for at least three months
  • Shift work disorder: a condition among people who work late at night or early in the morning that causes issues with falling asleep, staying asleep or excessive sleepiness at unwanted times.
  • Non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder: for most adults, the circadian rhythms guide our sleep-wake cycle, and these cycles remain consistent. For people with this condition, their cycles can vary drastically. –DB

Cover Spotlight: Dr. Ancy Maruthanal, MD

Photography by Jeremy Theron Kirby.

Exercise is non-negotiable. “It is better than any pill or injection, and it will help you live a longer, healthier life,” says Marunthanal, the medical director of the Executive Health and Advanced Primary Care Program at the University of Kansas Health System. “It’s about being well-rounded and staying active in different ways. Park a little further away, take the stairs and walk outside when you can. Experiment, and find what works for you. The American Heart Association recommends a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise. At this level, you should still be able to hold a conversation but not necessarily be able to sing a song.”
As medical director of her program, Maruthanal provides comprehensive care for patients who need an ally in navigating the complexities of medicine.
“Patients need a more proactive approach to medicine in order to live better and longer,” says Maruthanal, whose philosophy of care revolves around the patient, understanding their health care goals and creating a plan to achieve those goals. “We want to act as early as possible to prevent people from developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”
How do you go about doing that? Well, Maruthanal has a few suggestions:
• Eat more plants. I recommend shopping around the perimeter of the grocery store. This is where you will find more whole and unprocessed foods. The standard American diet is low in fiber. Aim to get 30 grams of fiber a day. This can come from vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains.
• Prioritize sleep. Your body needs sleep to unwind and regenerate cells. Chronic sleep deprivation can trigger underlying diseases.
• Practice mindfulness and meditation. The brain has neuroplasticity and can change and reorganize connections in response to learning. A positive outlook in life and gratitude can go a long way. Continue to have goals in life. Being socially engaged and emotionally connected is a big factor in reducing cognitive illnesses like dementia.
• Visit with your primary care physician annually. Have your blood pressure checked, and have your cholesterol, glucose and vitamin levels checked. Don’t skip out on the annual mammogram or be afraid of that screening colonoscopy.
“Medicine has come a long way, and we have so many tools to live better,” Maruthanal says. –DB

Spotlight: Dr. Susan Lee, MD

For Dr. Susan Lee, spiritual and emotional health are the foundations to building a healthy life. It’s these building blocks that help lead to other healthy choices, such as exercising and making smart food choices.
“I often talk with my patients about doing their best to enjoy life as it comes, and I encourage them to intentionally engage with others who can provide them with support and guidance,” Lee says. “Studies have shown that social isolation is one of the worst things we can do for our health. Sure, we know that eating right, exercising and physical health are all important, but the value of mental wellness can’t be overstated. I find that for myself and many of my patients who have had very long lives—or would like to—the emotional and spiritual health affects our physical health more than anything else,” says Lee, who practices family medicine at AdventHealth Medical Group Primary Care at South Overland Park.
“As a young woman, it was so very important to me to have the love and security of my family, friends and church community in building the foundation for the faith and resilience that would come to help me withstand the storms of later life,” says Lee, who earned her degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine.
These core values have served her well. “I am grateful to have the privilege of providing medical care for so many treasured families throughout the years,” Lee says. “A wise friend once told me ‘gratitude produces joy which produces peace which drives more gratitude.’ Therein lies the key to a healthy life.” –DB

Photography Courtesy of University of Kansas Hospital

Cover Doctor Spotlight: Dr. Michael Abraham, MD

Photography by Jeremy Theron Kirby.

Dr. Michael Abraham is a doctor and professor of neurointerventional surgery and neurocritical care. In other words, he treats stroke patients.

Abraham, who is an assistant professor and surgeon with the University of Kansas Health System, describes what he does as “minimally invasive surgery into the brain through the arteries or veins.” And like every expert in the medical field is saying today, Abraham says the key to a long and healthy life—and to preventing things like strokes—is actually living a healthy lifestyle.

“A common question patients and their families ask is how to prevent strokes or how to prevent brain aneurysms from occurring,” Abraham says. “Preventative care is an essential step. Having a regular primary care doctor, eating well, exercising regularly, avoiding tobacco use and [getting] good sleep are all very important. Additionally, knowing your body is very important. If you notice something is not right, reach out to your doctor.”

Abraham has been involved in clinical research that has greatly improved the lives of stroke patients. “We are now able to remove blood clots from the brain in minutes compared to 10 years ago where the surgery would take an hour,” he says. “We are able to treat a larger number of stroke patients based on data from clinical trials we have been a part of, and [we’re] now giving more patients a chance to walk out of the hospital rather than being wheelchair-bound and more patients going home rather than to a nursing home.”

Abraham says patients frequently ask him, “If I was your family member, what would you do?” His answer: “That is how I have always approached every patient. Throughout medical school, my mother always stressed to me to really listen to my patients and understand what they are going through.” –DB