– By Erica Cunningham –
You probably know someone with a chronic disease. Maybe you are living with a chronic disease yourself. About one in two adults live with a chronic disease and one in four adults live with two or more, but only half of adults get the physical activity they need to help reduce and prevent these diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the state of Alabama, heart disease was the leading cause of death in the year 2020, making Alabama the third-highest state with the most heart disease in the country following Mississippi and Oklahoma.
The State of Chronic Disease in Alabama published by the Chronic Care Policy Alliance gives us a better understanding of the rates and reasons for chronic diseases in the United States and within Alabama. According to the article, “Health care disparities create undue and significant hurdles for patients in need and disproportionally impact individuals with chronic conditions. It is critical that all patients have equal access to health care services independent of age, ethnicity, socio-economic status or health status”.
The lives of Americans living in rural areas differ from the lives of those in urban and suburban areas. That same publication by the CCPA said that access to good doctors and hospitals is a major problem for 23% of rural Americans. With chronic disease being the leading cause of death and disability in the U.S., self-guided preventative action becomes crucial, especially if you live in a rural area where support is already scarce. One of the most straightforward preventative measures to avoid chronic disease is to get regular physical activity.
Physical Activity Builds a Healthy and Strong America
Benefits for Children
- Reduces risk of depression
- Improves aerobic fitness
- Improves muscular fitness
- Improves bone health
- Promotes favorable body composition
- Improves attention and some measures of academic performance (with school physical activity programs)
Benefits for Adults
- Lowers risk of high blood pressure
- Lowers risk of stroke
- Improves aerobic fitness
- Improves mental health
- Improves cognitive function
- Reduces arthritis symptoms
- Prevents weight gain
Benefits for Healthy Aging
- Improves sleep
- Reduces risk of falling
- Improves balance
- Improves joint mobility
- Extends years of active life
- Helps prevent weak bones and muscle loss
- Delays onset of cognitive decline
Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
These rural community trends are found in the small town of Midway, located in Bullock County, Alabama. Midway has a population just shy of 500 residents, and 96% of them are African American. Hypertension, better known as high blood pressure, impacts 55% of African American adults. Due to historical and systemic factors, African Americans have disproportionally high rates of high blood pressure, and it tends to develop earlier in life.
Kimberly Foster-Young was welcomed to the Equitable Neighborhoods Initiative as a Community Liaison in May of 2022 and has been inspiring change in Midway, Alabama, ever since. Kimberly wanted to create an easy way to build community and positively impact the health of her neighbors, so she created the Midway walking group. After only a few months, it has changed the lives of many Midway residents.
Kimberly first got the idea to create a walking group when she saw that her community was struggling with health issues like diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, but she did not stop there. Kimberly did not only want to add a fun spin to exercising but also had the idea to pick up litter as they stroll the community and beautify their beloved town in the process. The walking group has been a huge success and has grown immensely in its lifespan.
“We have a lot of kids and adults that suffer from obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and other health problems. I had the idea that we could come up with a fun way to clean up our community and at the same time, everyone is getting their exercise on too! We started off with a couple of people and it just got bigger and bigger!” Kimberly said.
With 27.5% of Midway’s population living below the poverty line, access to health care and healthy foods is a large factor in obesity and high blood pressure rates. Kimberly has been able to take such a simple and no-cost activity as walking and improve the lives of people in her community who don’t want to be defined by these statistics.
Health care disparities create undue and significant hurdles for patients in need and disproportionally impact individuals with chronic conditions. It is critical that all patients have equal access to health care services independent of age, ethnicity, socio-economic status or health status.Chronic care policy alliance, 2022
The walking group been beneficial to both the physical and mental health of Midway citizens. It not only serves as an exercise group, but also provides support to each participant to share their experiences and feelings, get feedback, make friends, and be social with other people in their community. The social setting of the walking group allows for bonding between citizens, but the physical activity stimulates brain chemicals that can also improve mood, increase happiness, and limit anxiety.
It is the little things that can make the biggest changes. One success story of the Midway walking group is a thirteen-year-old girl who struggles with diabetes and high blood pressure. Through walking with the group, she has been able to lose 50 pounds and keep her glucose levels better controlled. The group setting of this walking group is so important because seeing the success of one member inspires other members to work harder and see even more results.
The Midway walking group has uplifted a portion of the Midway community and guided participants on a betterment journey of their own. Kimberly hopes to expand the success of the Midway walking group by recruiting more members and inspiring other towns to start their own walking groups. It does not take any fancy equipment or walking trails to get up, get active and uplift your community.
An important lesson that Kimberly took away from her creation of the walking group is that there are ways to accomplish any goal as long as you are creative and resourceful. With no walking trails and no expensive equipment, Kimberly gathered a group of people with a common goal and used the resources they had to put them on a road to success. It can be discouraging to begin a health journey without some of the high-tech resources that others may have, but “Don’t let that be a stumbling block,” said Kimberly.
“You have streets… so that is your walking trail. We don’t even have a trail, but we use our community streets. We have someone who wears a vest in the front and in the back as well, so we are cautious of safety. Just use what you have. Streets, ballparks, basketball courts, stuff like that can be utilized.”
A pair of walking shoes, motivation, and support from other people in the community are what keeps the Midway walking group going. No matter what resources are available to you, your goals are within walking distance, and you can obtain them and instill your motivation in others. “One person can make a difference,” Kimberly said and proved this through her leadership within the walking group. “Don’t just give up, keep going and push, push, push. Believe it or not, it does work.”