Nice weather always brings out the walkers. It's a terrific way to exercise and get back into shape for the beautiful spring and summer months ahead. In our region of Western Massachusetts, many of the walkers are part of a program called Walk with Me in the Berkshires, which began 14 years ago as a way to help our community improve its health by walking regularly.
Sponsored by Berkshire Health Systems, the program is free, and while the 2016 Walking program is full, you can easily duplicate it with groups of friends or community organizations anywhere.
Walk with Me in the Berkshires runs for six weeks in the spring. Teams of between two and 20 people participate, with a total of nearly 3,500 people now walking regularly as part of the program. They record their steps using a pedometer provided by BHS, though anyone can buy a relatively inexpensive step counter or pedometer through a local retail outlet or online.
In the first few years, we had a limit of 1,000 participants and used a paper registration system and a paper step-reporting system. In time, we adopted an electronic system that is now used for registration and step-reporting. That allowed the program to expand access almost yearly.
The goal of the program is to increase the number of steps taken every week. Thus, the first week should be used as a baseline to record all of the steps you take in a normal week. After that, participants are encouraged to increase their step counts weekly, with the hope that by the end of the six-week program, they are walking much more and improving their health through increased movement.
According to Michael Leary, Director of Media Relations at BHS who coordinates Walk with Me in the Berkshires, this program is not viewed as a competition, even though people participate in teams. "The biggest prize we offer is better health through increased activity, and that has resonated with people who participate in the program each year."
Participants keep their pedometers once the program is over and we encourage them to continue walking and setting higher weekly goals for steps. All of our participants also receive a T-shirt at the end of the six weeks.
Scores of research over the years has documented the health benefits associated with walking. Regular walking strengthens your cardiovascular system, decreasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. It reduces your risk for developing Type 2 diabetes or can help keep your diabetes under control. It decreases high blood pressure and is a key ingredient to any weight loss program. Walking will tone muscles, build greater strength, and even boost your mood by reducing stress and anxiety. Walking makes you happy!
One of the most interesting studies about walking (and other forms of exercise) was released by neurosciences at the University of Pittsburg, who found that 30 to 40 minutes of brisk walking several times a week helped to ward off dementia, improved brain function and cognitive performance. The earlier in life that you start walking the better, but scientists documented brain improvements at any age.
If you are serious about gaining as many benefits as possible, pay attention to your walking technique. Look forward. Keep your neck, shoulders and back relaxed while swinging your arms with a slight bend at the elbow. Make sure your back is straight and not arched forward or backward. Roll your foot from heel to toe.
Before cars and mass transportation, people walked and they were far healthier than our generation. You've been cooped up all winter. Get out and walk!
Carol Nixon, MEd is the Wellness Program Coordinator at Berkshire Health Systems