For many people, "walk" is just a four-letter word. But walking can be fun if you turn it into a challenge for friends and family, transforming your exertion into good health.
That is the goal of AARP's 10-week walking program, Step Up to Better Health. People like Valerie Lawrence of Poplar Bluff have been able to get their blood sugar levels down, become more fit and have a good time doing it. Aiming for a target of 10,000 steps a day provided good motivation, she said.
"It was exciting because you set that goal and tried every day to meet it," said Lawrence, 51. "You could just challenge yourself that much more the next day if you didn't make it."
Being with others who are equally motivated helps. Lawrence persuaded her mother to join her, and when the next program comes around, she hopes to get her daughter walking as well.
"A lot of times, when you do something on your own, you don't have anybody to be accountable to," she said. "When you're in a group, you can't just slack off."
One AARP walking group leader, Ilena Aslin of Cape Girardeau, uses her 30 years of experience as a Girl Scout executive director to motivate people in southeast Missouri. She gets them moving and sets a good example with enthusiasm that is contagious.
Walkers get health checks when the program starts, when it ends and at regular intervals along the way, so they can easily see how exercise benefits their weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, strength, flexibility—even stress.
Aslin, who is 83, recalled asking members of one group whether they thought walking was making their lives a little easier to handle.
"Hands went up," she said. "It's kind of amazing. Some of the people were already walking, but they walk more, and they come back because they get lots of good information that helps them with their daily living.
"It's become a thing with me. If I don't do it, I almost feel guilty. I don't feel good. For me, it's a stress reliever. You'd think because I'm retired, I wouldn't have stress, but I do."
Statistics from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services illustrate why walking could benefit older Missourians—they have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer than any other age group.
In 2007, according to the latest figures available:
• 38.5 percent of Missourians over 65 said they did not exercise;
• 40 percent had high blood pressure;
• 25 percent were obese;
• 25 percent had high cholesterol.
Walking regimens can't eliminate health problems. But R. Diane Hall, AARP Missouri associate director for community outreach, said healthy behaviors can put people on the right track-sometimes literally.
"It's something that most people can do," Hall said. "It doesn't take a lot of special equipment. It doesn't take a lot of preparation. And people see results pretty much from the first couple of weeks, and they are positive changes. It's very motivating."
Walking programs have multiplied in recent years as more people recognize the health and social benefits. In Kansas City, the Parks and Recreation Department's center at Westport Roanoke has expanded its 10-week sessions to people of all ages. Families are enjoying themselves, learning about health issues and celebrating with a banquet at the end.
"We had a big success with that," said center director Sheronda Stonum, "because a lot of the people were grandparents with grandkids."
To start a walking program, contact AARP's R. Diane Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll-free 1-866-389-5627.
Dale Singer is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.