Just keep your feet moving
Bill Merrylees Photo
The fifth-grade class of teacher Morgan Lloyd at Union Elementary School in Montpelier.
On Feb. 2, Groundhog – or Woodchuck – Day, Punxutawney Phil failed to see his shadow so, they say, spring will arrive early this year. The walking Vermont public will be out in force as soon as the ice melts, the air warms, and the sun makes its welcome appearance.
Each spring the phenomenon is the same as men, women, children and dogs take to the roads and sidewalks.
Walking is a nearly perfect activity. Most people can walk. Of course, there are those who, for medical and physical reasons, are unable to do so, but even these folks are often able to join walkers in some other capacity to enjoy the fresh air.
Walking is within any budget. All you need is a suitable pair of shoes. Walking takes no skill other than putting one foot in front of the other. Once again, there are a few guidelines to walk with anatomically good form: stand tall, be sure the knees and feet are in alignment, swing the arms easily and avoid locking the knees. Walking is a natural and instinctive gait.
Walking, at a brisk pace and including a variety of terrain, elevates the heart rate well within the aerobic range and, when the intensity is sustained over the duration of the walk, builds endurance and stamina. Most walking activity, neither too hard nor too easy, is fueled by stored body fat.
You do not need to get in the car and drive somewhere. You can open your front door and go for a walk. Perhaps best of all, walking is a social activity and is often responsible for coaxing into the outdoors families, friends, neighbors, and even the homebodies who too often opt to remain inside or sedentary.
Walking began as a means of transportation, a way to get from point A to point B. Are you one of those Vermonters who tells your grandchildren that you had to walk 3 miles to school and back? (Probably in the rain, the snow, below zero and barefoot, if you recall with any sort of enthusiasm.) You should know, then, that there are efforts across the state and, in fact, across the nation to encourage children to, once again, walk to school.
Consider “Walk to School Day,” an enterprise coordinated by the National Center for Safe Routes to School. Many Vermont schools and localities participated in this event again last October.
As sometimes happens, the kids may be leading the way. Helping to make it possible for their children to walk to school, parents often find themselves pitching in to supervise, facilitate and even join as the younger generation shows the older generation how to do it.
Then there’s the Montpelier “Walk on Wednesdays This Winter.” According to Bill Merrylees, wellness coordinator for Community Connections in Montpelier, here’s how it works at Union Elementary school under principal Owen Bradley; kids who walk to school on Wednesdays, check in with their classroom teachers who, in turn, keep a tally.
There is a friendly competition among the classes to engage the highest number of walkers and thereby win the coveted “golden sneaker” award for the week. (If a student is unable to walk the route to school, he or she may “walk the walk” around the building where, at Union, five laps equal 1 mile.)
“The Physical Education teachers are very psyched,” Merrylees said. “They take it from there, awarding the ‘golden sneaker’ to the winning class each Monday. They also read the results over the PA for the entire school to hear.”
What is this sought-after award?
“I got a pair of Nikes from the Salvation Army,” Merrylees said, “and a can of gold spray paint.”
Attached to a hand-assembled block of wood, the shoe represents an accomplishment that is confirmed by adding each week’s winning class name to the trophy.
In January, participation began modestly but is building.
“We promote with signs at school,” Merrylees said, “and the principal presented it to the Parents’ Group. A next step is to promote this as a community-wide initiative via newspapers and signs in store windows – ‘do like our kids do ...’”
Clearly this type of activity needs adult support. After all, if the parents can encourage their kids to become more active, to eat a good breakfast, dress appropriately, manage their time and join friends, why shouldn’t the parents do the same and enjoy the by-products of health and fitness-producing activity? The fight against obesity, and the glut of diseases to which obesity contributes, is on. Add environmental and social benefits, and you’ve got a true winner.
With the continuing success of Vermont Safe Routes to School programs and events, positive changes are taking place. Not only are students urged to walk or bike to school, but they are taught the laws and skills pertaining to these activities. Local public awareness is often manifested in changing traffic patterns and reduced speeds. Sidewalks have been repaired and safety measures defined and practiced.
“Local endeavors have positive effects on our children and neighborhoods,” Merrylees said. At the grassroots level, groups such as Montpelier’s Community Connections, work creatively to improve the lives of Vermont families by teaching, leading and organizing opportunities to make the most of living in Vermont. “Community Connections,” Merrylees said, “offers a variety of activities to better the health and wellbeing of children plus show them how to have an actively good time.”
Given all that the Vermont outdoors has to offer, given the coincidence of physical activity, nutrition and safety surrounding each opportunity, given the role that sheer fun plays in overall wellness, wouldn’t it follow that engaging all ages in the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle be appropriate for those who live here in Vermont? Taking one step at a time, there is no better way to begin than by walking.