Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Walter “Hal” Wray will never forget the sense of accomplishment he felt after crossing the finish line of a 140.6-mile triathlon in 2020. For the 40-year-old, it was an achievement built on a foundation of fitness.

Dr. Walter Wray
Dr. Walter Wray

Wray is grateful for the active upbringing he had, remembering running around the neighborhood with ankle weights on or rucking up mountains to get ready for wrestling season or the next great adventure.

Some of the injuries Wray sustained during those adventures led to his career in medicine.

“I was always getting hurt and needing stitches, crutches, or a cast,” he said. “Dad would patch me up and I became fascinated with using tools to put people back together.”

His father was a family medicine doctor in Clemmons, North Carolina, and Wray often found himself sitting for hours looking at “gross” pictures in his dad’s medical journals after school. His interest in orthopedics developed after he observed a hand surgery at Novant Health Medical Park Hospital when he was in the eighth grade.

In high school, he spent several summers working in construction and ultimately found that he could use those same building principles to restore and strengthen the human body. He went on to combine his passion for athletics and medicine by becoming an orthopedic hand surgeon at Novant Health Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Clemmons and Thomasville.

As a doctor, his philosophy is simple: help patients recover from injury, and teach them how to prevent those injuries from reoccurring with functional fitness.

No Repeat Injuries

Wray likes to ask a lot of questions when meeting with new patients. He will often ask how the injury occurred, what line of work they are in, and what their goals are for the future. Wray then uses this assessment to introduce the concept of functional fitness.

“I have a lot of patients that suffer injuries at work,” he said. “For example, I saw a gentleman recently that works as a baggage handler at the airport. The daily grind of moving heavy luggage took a toll on his body and contributed to a tear in his rotator cuff. I told this patient that I could fix his rotator cuff, but if he was planning to go back to the same job, it was time to start thinking about strengthening his shoulder to prevent this same kind of injury from happening again.”

Different from simply joining a gym and doing the lonely “equipment circuit,” Wray defines functional fitness as incorporating specific exercises and compound movement patterns to strengthen the body. Functional fitness creates the strength that allows the body to withstand the rigors of your job or everyday life.

“Functional fitness applies to every stage of life,” he said. “Half the battle is understanding why you are doing the exercises you are doing. Think of a young mother trying to pick up her toddler 100 times a day or the middle-aged man lifting bags of mulch into his truck. That can certainly take a toll on the back, but by incorporating functional exercises like squats and deadlifts, people can avoid injury and continue to be Super Mom or Dad.”

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Establishing a solid foundation

Wray likes to compare the importance of functional fitness to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Often depicted as a five-tier pyramid, Maslow believed that the lowest level – basic needs – of the pyramid need to be addressed before a person could move on to other motivations in life.

“When it comes to your body, I see fitness as that base layer,” said Wray. “If you are not exercising or eating properly, anything you try to stack on top of that foundation, whether it be hauling hay bales or playing soccer with the grandkids, is just not going to work very well.”

Outside of providing education in the clinic, Wray also equips his patients with the tools they need moving forward – including home exercises, getting started with a personal trainer, working with a physical or occupational therapist, or signing up for one of Novant Health’s nutrition, weight loss or exercise programs.

Everyone has a different starting place

Dr. Wray and his wife Jill complete an ultra marathon
Dr. Wray and his wife Jill cross the finish line of an ultramarathon.

While he gave up the ankle weights long ago, Wray has completed five marathons, two ultramarathons, a half Ironman and a full Ironman.

“Fitness has always been important to me because I want to stay healthy for my family and patients,” he shared. “But I recognize that everyone has different motivations, goals and starting points in life. It’s about trying to help patients determine which functional exercises they need to start doing in order to achieve their goals and prevent injury.”

Functional fitness options are becoming more popular and easier to access. Wray encourages patients to talk to their doctors first about any underlying health problems. He also recommends that finding an accountability partner can help keep you motivated.

“There are so many great options from water aerobics to hiking to group exercise classes,” he said. “Once you have talked to your doctor, find the one that is right for you.”

The goal: Develop a personalized plan that is right for each patient, and then stick to it.

“The time to start is now,” he said. “Not only will a commitment to functional fitness and a healthy diet help to prevent injuries from occurring, but it will also help ward off the onset of other health issues, like diabetes and obesity, down the road.”