Walking has become a way of life and wellness for a group of more than 150,000 African-American women across the United States.
The women are linked through the Washington, D.C.-based Black Women's Health Imperative and its Walking for Wellness Program, and hundreds of them log on to www.blackwomenshealth.org every day to document pedometer steps and the type and duration of their physical activity, to record what they've eaten, to get nutritional facts, weight-management and stress-alleviating tips and encouragement as well.
"The program focuses on not just walking, but physical activity and nutrition," says Ingrid Padgett, director of member and affiliate relations for the nonprofit BWHI. "Black women's health is in a state of crisis in general. Black women are in the poorest health state, and receive the poorest health care, and we offer ways for them to become less sedentary.
"We traditionally focus on walking because it's an easy and fun way to get physical activity in your life, and it's not as intimidating as a true workout regimen, like going to the gym."
Increased health risks associated with obesity and sedentary behavior include adult-onset diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, cardiovascular disease, sleep apnea, depression and osteoarthritis. Many of them disproportionately affect African-Americans.
According to BWHI's Web site, a recent federal study showed that "67 percent of African-American women say they never exercise. Even African-American teen-age girls are far more sedentary than their White counterparts."
The average American takes between 900 and 3,000 steps a day, while most people need 10,000 steps to maintain or lose weight.
The Walking for Wellness online service was first offered in June 2004. Walking for Wellness programs have existed since the BWHI's start in 1983 and have been in conjunction with the American Heart Association since 1996.
Walking for Wellness offers a variety of plans for diverse women with different daily patterns and responsibilities.
"Women do so much, it's hard to find some 'me' time," says Sharon Buie, 42, of Catonsville.
"Walking for Wellness is a good program because a large population of women can't balance a schedule of going to the gym [with] home and work," says Buie, who works full-time, attends school full-time and raises her two children and a foster child.
Buie, who joined the program in November, walks four days a week for 45 minutes in the morning and 40 minutes during her lunch break, and has lost a total of 25 pounds thus far.
"When I started walking, I could think, I could pray, I could cry. When I started walking more, I could walk. Walking freed my mind. It was therapeutic in more ways than one - physically, mentally and emotionally," she says.
Sheronda Wilson of Woodlawn joined Walking for Wellness eight months ago to lose weight and get healthy. "I use the Web site to track my progress. It helps keep me focused, and keeps track of your progress and lets you know if you're doing the right kind of exercises," the 38-year-old Wilson says.
"I just want to be able to go to the doctor and not have to be prescribed high blood pressure medicine," Wilson says.
In addition to walking twice a day - once during her lunch break and again in the evening, approximately 3 to 4 miles a day - Wilson has incorporated breakfast and home-cooked meals into her health plan, and drastically changed her diet by reducing starchy and fatty-food intake.
Walking for Wellness' online topics include food and eating, stress reduction, weight control, goal setting and general health. The Web site also includes a "food diary," so participants can track diets, food intake and nutrition.
Walking for Wellness is a national program, open to all women. There are no costs to join the program or to become a member of the BWHI.
The BWHI also hosts the Walking for Wellness Research Study, a tri-regional study aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of the online program. Users of the Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles sites participate in the program. Women at the Philadelphia site receive periodic calls from counselors. The Los Angeles program includes telephone counselors and biweekly walk-and-talk group sessions.
In Maryland, women - and men - can take part in a local walking program. Get Fit Maryland, sponsored by the University of Maryland Medical Center, the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Merritt Athletic Clubs, is geared toward curbing obesity and increasing health and productivity in participants. This program challenges participants to walk 10,000 steps per day.
"Many people aren't aware of how sedentary they've become, but adding just three hours of walking each week can greatly reduce your health risks," says Dr. Suzanne Sysko, medical director of the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
For more information on Get Fit Maryland, visit www.getfitmaryland.org.