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Step toward mental, physical wellness

A good pair of walking shoes is all the equipment you need to start a healthy walking habit. Photo: Joe Imel
Jill Harris, left, Barbara McIntyre and Cherie Morris get in some steps at the Elkton-Todd County Park. Photos: Joe Imel
Find a partner or group and walk together. You can motivate each other and stay accountable. Photo: Joe Imel
Betty Coppage, left, Barbara McIntyre, Cherie Morris and Dianna Harris each participated in last year’s walking challenge. Photo: Joe Imel
Walking is an exercise than can be done nearly anywhere by nearly anyone. Photo: Joe Imel

Walking—almost anyone can do it, and it’s one of the best paths to fitness and health. 

“You don’t have to have special equipment—just a good pair of walking shoes—and you can do it just about anywhere,” says Jill Harris, family and consumer sciences agent in the Todd County Extension Office. 

In each of the past two years, Harris and other Pennyrile Area Extension Family & Consumer Sciences agents implemented WalkTober, a four-week walking challenge in October to promote physical activity and health awareness. Creating a friendly competition among counties encouraged participants to track their steps. 

“Through this program, participants focused on improving health behaviors by making lifestyle choices to increase physical activity and eat nutritious meals,” says Harris, a Pennyrile Electric consumer-member. In the two years combined, 256 adults participated and reported walking 36,046,032 steps— approximately 18,023 miles. 

Cherie Morris, of Elkton, the president of her local club of the Todd County Homemakers Association, participated in the challenge both years. Morris says she wanted to lead by example and encourage other members to participate, too. 

Morris, also a Pennyrile Electric consumer-member, describes herself as a “fair-weather walker—I make excuses not to walk. But with a challenge, I was motivated to walk.” 

Fit Blue 

The principles of the walking challenge can be applied any time of year in nearly any location. Harris says walkers could sign up for the challenge at their local extension office or by using the Fit Blue app, developed by the University of Kentucky Family & Consumer Sciences Extension. 

Available in the Apple App and Google Play stores, the app is free to download. Using the app’s “GameMode,” challenge participants could track their activity, Harris says. 

Wayne Addison, Trenton, joined the challenge with his wife and used the app to track his steps. After three to four days, he found himself among the top walkers. 

“Then, I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this.’” 

Another key part of the challenge was encouraging participants to choose a nutritious diet. In the “Nutrition” section of the app, walkers can search for farmers markets, food banks and summer food service programs using their location to find offerings nearest to them. There are also dozens of healthy recipes in the app from Plate It Up Kentucky Proud. 

The app includes a library of exercise videos that go beyond walking—strength training, balance and flexibility, as well as workout programs for beginners up to advanced levels. The videos demonstrate options or adaptations to do a variety of exercises and offer safe techniques so that people with disabilities or injuries can incorporate movement into their daily routine. 

“At the end of the challenge, we did a survey to see how it helped people,” Harris says. According to the survey, 94% of respondents became aware of the benefits of physical activity and 84% reported an increase in physical activity levels, she says. Healthwise, more than half of survey respondents (53%) noticed an improvement in one or more health indicators (cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index, blood glucose). 

Reap the good things 

Walking has many benefits. It can strengthen muscles, which help support joints and keep them better aligned; and it can improve cardiovascular health and blood pressure. Walking also is a great strategy for decreasing stress. 

“No matter what your fitness or activity level, starting a walking routine is achievable,” says Serena Weisner, director of community programming for the Osteoarthritis Action Alliance (OAAA), a national coalition that raises awareness and provides education about osteoarthritis. “It’s an easy activity that you can do at your own pace; and it’s low-impact, so it is less likely to injure joints than higher impact activities like jogging or running might.” 

Are there barriers that keep you from walking on a regular basis? Weisner says to write them down, then take them on one at a time. 

“If you say you don’t have time, work it into your daily routine bit by bit,” she says. “For instance, park your car farther away from the store when you’re running errands or march in place when you are on conference calls. If you lack motivation, find a walking partner so you can inspire each other. If you’re bored, listen to music or podcasts to get you going. If you can’t walk outside, walk inside your home. 

“Walking is very individual. Start out slowly, perhaps only doing five or 10 minutes a couple of days a week, and build up your routine.” 

For maximum effectiveness, build up to 30 minutes a day for five days, she says, in two 15-minute walks or three 10-minute walks. The goal: To eventually walk about 150 minutes a week for the greatest benefits. 

Don’t be discouraged by a slow start or missing a few days a week, Weisner says. “Create a walking program that works for you and your lifestyle,” she advises. “The key is to start where you are, set achievable goals and realize that you’re doing a positive thing for yourself. It’s a good habit to get into that will give you long-term benefits for your overall health and wellness.” 

Morris, who participated in the Pennyrile Area Extension WalkTober challenge in 2020 and 2021, says the challenge helped motivate her to walk more, even after it was over. 

“You feel better,” she says. “You can’t just stop and fall back into your old ways. It becomes such a habit. You appreciate the fresh air, sunshine and clearing your head doing something that’s just for you.” 

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