'Iwalk' campaign hits the ground running

March 22, 2009 2:55:38 PM PDT
Local government agencies in Sonoma County are walking the talk about walking.

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They're joining the countywide "iWALK" effort sponsored by Health Action, a body of community leaders established by the county's Board of Supervisors in August 2007.

The goal is to get children, families, businesses and neighborhoods walking to work, school or just for fun so neighborhoods are safe and "walkable" for people of all ages.

The iWALK campaign is the first Health Action initiative to make the county the healthiest place to live in California. Walking is easy, affordable and an effective way to improve overall health, Health Action stresses.

The Cloverdale City Council was the first to endorse iWALK on Feb. 11. The governing bodies of Petaluma, Sebastopol and Windsor followed suit. Sebastopol Mayor Sarah Glade Gurney said her city launched the walking program in January 2008.

"Our walking program was inspired by Richard Nichols, author of the book Sebastopol Walks," Gurney said.

Nichols promoted walking as a healthy activity but Gurney said it also is a political and social activity that makes people and the planet healthier and happier.

The countywide kickoff of iWALK is May 16 when existing walking groups walk through their neighborhoods to encourage others to form groups and get into the walking habit.

Health Action's iWALK Web site, www.iwalksonoma.org, should be up and walking May 1.

It will identify existing walking groups, provide guidelines to start new groups and identify safe walking routes throughout the county.

Dr. Kirk Pappas, a sports medicine specialist at Kaiser Permanente and a member of Health Action's iWALK steering group, said a little bit of walking goes a long way.

"If you walk 150 minutes a week-just 30 minutes a day for five days-you can help prevent cardiovascular problems, diabetes, cancer and other major diseases. It's social, it's emotionally satisfying and it's very good for your long-term health," Pappas said.

Health Action was established at a time when the local health care delivery system was in crisis. The number of uninsured Sonoma County residents was 60,000 and growing and the numbers do not include jobs and health insurance that have been lost since the current recession began.

The number of physicians in the county was declining and district hospitals and community health centers were struggling financially, county officials said.

Health Action identified the county's major health concerns that include access to health services, drug and alcohol addiction, chronic diseases, an aging population, inadequate dental services for uninsured residents and a low Medicare reimbursement rate.

Health Action's goal is to improvement community health by 2020. That entails ensuring all residents have access to healthy foods, encouraging everyone of all ages to get physically active and connecting all residents with a trusted source of prevention-focused primary health care.

Sonoma County Public Health Officer Dr. Mary Maddox-Gonzalez said those three areas can significantly improve the health of the community.

"We can reverse the epidemic of obesity and related chronic disease, feel better and live longer if each of us increases our physical activity and eats healthier," Gonzalez said.

"Our message is very simple," said Mary Szecsey, chairperson of the iWALK steering group and executive director of the West County Health Centers.

"Join a walking group or form a walking group, or just start walking with your family or friends and neighbors. Start walking today," Szecsey said.

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