Walk Kansas program encourages participants to take steps towards healthier living

Community members working towards a healthier lifestyle through Walk Kansas can exercise on the new Little Apple Loop, a 22.5 mile loop around Manhattan. Ashley Svaty, nutrition, food safety and health extension agent for Post Rock district, said healthier living is for everyone. (Jared Newell | Collegian Media Group)

Lace up your shoes and get moving, it’s time to walk, Kansas. This spring, Walk Kansas — a statewide, eight-week program to promote healthier living — kicked off on March 28.

On average, 6,000 people participate in the program annually, with 251 participants in Riley County this year. Throughout the duration of eight weeks, participants log and report their amount of daily physical activity and amounts of fruits and vegetables eaten.

“The goal is to get people to be more physically active and to establish a habit of physical activity,” Sharolyn Flaming Jackson, the state coordinator for the program and one of its founding members said. “Along with that, we focus on fruits and vegetable consumption because we fall far short in Kansas, and even in the country, of meeting the goal for fruits and vegetables.”

Jackson, K-State Research and Extension specialist for family and consumer sciences, said Walk Kansas was designed to be adaptable and inclusive of participants with diverse levels of ability.

She said the program has no age range and it has had participants as young as two years old, clear up to people in their 90s.

Because the program is based on the physical activity guidelines for Americans, the participants’ activity is tracked in minutes, not miles.

Jessica Kootz, family consumer sciences extension agent for the Midway district, said she has seen first-hand how this has made the program more inclusive of participants.

“Last year, I had a participant that had just had [surgery], she was in her 80s,” Kootz said. “She’s going to get the same amount of minutes as somebody that might be training for a marathon or something like that. So it keeps the playing field very even and nobody feels like, just because I’m slower doesn’t mean that I’m not as capable.”

Although it’s called Walk Kansas, the program welcomes any kind of physical activity from participants who can be found all over the world.

Ashley Svaty, nutrition, food safety and health extension agent for Post Rock district, said the program is focused on “any kind of physical activity that you like to do.”

“It’s for everyone and everybody,” Kootz said. “You can be in a wheelchair, or we have somebody in our district that has [Cerebral Palsy] and so he can’t walk, but he can ride his recumbent bike … So any age, any ability, any budget — all you need is a comfortable pair of shoes to really get out there.”

Jackson said during the pandemic, Walk Kansas was the only program the K-State Research and Extension office could offer, and that its number of participants was steady with what it has been in previous years.

“It was really interesting timing, because we got the call to work from home, I think the week before Walk Kansas was to start,” Jackson said. “Everybody was canceling everything, so I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, no, we’re not canceling Walk Kansas. And in fact, we need it more now than ever.’”

Jackson said she heard from some participants that Walk Kansas became “like a lifeline” for them at the beginning of the pandemic because Walk Kansas remained a constant during a time when things were taken away from people.

Through utilizing Facebook Groups, zoom and phone calls, participants could stay connected and retain the teamwork value of the program.

Many past participants reported physical and mental health benefits from the program, including that it helped them to lower their cholesterol, lose weight and improve their mental health by boosting their confidence and getting them outside.

“I think [the program] is a reminder to really focus on our health and put it as a priority,” Svaty said. “Even if it is just the eight weeks of Walk Kansas, we know it’s coming up every spring, and we just really work towards those eight weeks, so we can continue that habit throughout the year.”

This spring’s program will finish on May 22. Svaty encouraged anyone who may be considering participating in Walk Kansas next year to give it a try.

“Try it, try it for a year, join any social media that your extension office is offering, or just sit down and talk to the local Extension agent to see if this program is for you, and they will find out that it is because it’s for everybody,” Svaty said.