A Heart-Warming Program

They lace up athletic shoes, remove jackets (or put them on, according to the weather), stretch a bit and set off walking. They tell jokes and catch up on each others’ lives. Forty minutes later, they are done--with the first two miles.

The entire 26.2-mile marathon might take three weeks or three months, depending on the walker. But when they have finished, they know they have accomplished something important for their health and have had a good time doing it in some beautiful settings.

The Long And Short

For the past two years, an ever-expanding group of older adults has participated in the Golden Marathon, a walking program conceived by Ohio’s Preservation Parks of Delaware County, and now co-sponsored by Senior Citizens Inc. and the Delaware General Health District.

The idea is to break down a marathon into doable increments, usually about two miles at a time. The group walks nearly every Monday afternoon, most often along nature trails in the park system’s six preserves, or in other natural areas of the county.

Cold weather sends them indoors to venues such as the county’s senior center or a Delaware city recreation facility, but it’s the outdoor walks that members of the group really look forward to. In fact, on one cold, drizzly January day, most of them bundled up and took their walk outdoors.

“We like that much better,” participant Vickie Rife says. “It’s just energizing.”

Another walker -- Roy Smith -- seconded that, saying he looks forward to spring when the walks move back to the parks.

“We walk and talk and look around,” he says. “There’s a lot to see on the [nature] trails.” On one walk in a preserve, Smith came across a snake slithering across the leaves. His picture of it graces the September page in the parks’ 2008 calendar.

Beyond the fresh air and pretty views, Golden Marathoners have the opportunity to become better acquainted with the natural world. The trails include information signs along the way, and walkers can get answers about habitats, birds and other wildlife from the hike leader, a former education coordinator for the park system.

The Domino Effect

The Golden Marathon grew out of a desire by the director of the park district to create a program for senior citizens. Saundra Sklar, special events and volunteer coordinator for the parks district, came across an article about a program that breaks up a children’s marathon into short distances.

“I thought this could also be a great idea for older adults,” she says. She explained the idea to Senior Citizens Inc., which coincidentally was looking for a hiking program for its clientele.

The health department came aboard later, offering to supply pedometers, water bottle straps and other incentives and rewards to participants, along with a wealth of information about staying healthy.

The Breakdown

Golden Marathons are held four times a year, each lasting three months. Walkers keep track of their miles, which they can accumulate during the Monday walks or on their own.

Sklar and Sandy Miller, program director at Senior Citizens Inc., decide upon the locations. Besides using the county parks, they plan two or three bus trips a year to places like Mohican and Maumee Bay state parks.

At the end of the three months, walkers are recognized in a ceremony where they receive certificates and small items to encourage them to keep walking.

The program has grown rapidly, from about 20 participants in the early marathons to about 75. During some hikes, there have been as many as 50 people involved.

The Golden Marathon is virtually cost-free, other than those costs associated with staff time and the incentives. But the benefits are numerous and shared by all the participants and organizations involved.

Everyone Gains

As with many of the other walkers, the Golden Marathon program introduced resident Smith to the Preservation Parks system. He had not visited any of the parks before, but is now a regular--as are many of the other walkers.

“They have all become ambassadors for the parks,” says Sklar. “They know all the parks, all the trails, in all the seasons.”

She brings books along to help walkers identify what they are seeing, and a naturalist accompanies the group at times.

Sklar says the Golden Marathon walkers have found a new avenue for photography, and often bring their grandchildren to the parks during the summer. They also have become a core group of volunteers--staffing nature centers and helping with special events.

Perhaps more importantly, the walkers watch out for one another.

“They might notice that someone who was walking great last week is having trouble breathing this week,” Sklar says. “And if someone is missing because they are out having some sort of [medical] procedure done, they call and send cards.”

A Healthy Response

The health benefits associated with walking are apparent not only to the participants, but to the organizations who support it.

“I’ve had people with heart problems,” says the senior center’s Miller. “When they start walking, they are lucky to go a couple hundred feet, and by the end of the marathon, they are walking a mile.”

She adds that health benefits become apparent very quickly after senior citizens start walking on a regular basis.

“Walking keeps the heart rate up,” she says. “They are able to navigate better and able to do daily chores more easily.”

Health officials point to research that shows how exercise like walking can prevent and delay many diseases and disabilities. Among other benefits, walking relieves symptoms of arthritis, diabetes and heart disease. It promotes good balance, strengthens the body, and increases flexibility. It also improves mental health and retains memory.

These are all important, says health district spokesman Jesse Carter, because chronic disease has taken the place of communicable disease as the leading cause of death and disability among older people.

“Heart disease is number one, then stroke and cancer,” he says. “It is in the interest of public health to get as many people out there as possible … getting their hearts in shape for years and years of cardiovascular activity.”

Carter says that information sent to the public about the benefits of walking doesn’t do any good if people aren’t motivated.

“We need community partners to provide attractive places to exercise,” he says. “What the park district does is provide pretty places to take a walk.”

The walkers themselves have nothing but praise for the Golden Marathon.

Earline Skeels says she walks for the company and for her health.

“This gets me out amongst people,” adding that walking improves her circulation--especially important since she is diabetic.

Smith’s description of one particular hike hints at what makes the program work.

Maybe it was the promise of a great view or a day when everyone felt particularly energetic. Whichever, a couple dozen hikers made it up 947 steps to the top of a ridge in the Hocking Hills of southeastern Ohio.

“I was kind of surprised; everybody made it pretty good,” says Smith. “I think it’s just the camaraderie of the group. We all pull together.”

Sue Hagan is a public relations specialist for Preservation Parks of Delaware County in Ohio. She can be reached via e-mail at shagan@preservationparks.com.