Walking the Walk

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

The Best Exercise

WebMD Feature

Nov. 20, 2000 -- Byllye Avery was in a New York cab, heading to a lunchtime appointment, when she noticed who was crowding the sidewalk: Many African-American women, she says -- walking, striding, hurrying to do their errands as the lunch hour ticked by.

Seeing other black women on foot 10 years ago gave Avery the idea for a program that has grown to 25 cities nationwide and has touched the lives of as many as 10,000 women. Called Walking for Wellness, the program encourages women to walk daily or several times a week, with a partner or in small groups. No fancy equipment is required, and most any location will do, including office hallways, city streets, public parks -- even the local mall.

"It's easy for most able-bodied people to do and it doesn't cost much -- all you need is a good pair of shoes," says Avery, who is also the founder of the National Black Women's Health Project, a group that provides information and resources to African-American women.

Such health campaigns come amid clinical studies that show that when it comes to exercise, African-American women just aren't getting as much as they need. A January 2000 study of 64,524 black women in the journal Preventive Medicine found low levels of physical activity among women aged 21 to 69 , with 57% reporting that they spent an hour or less per week walking for exercise. (Eighteen percent engaged in moderate exercise, such as gardening or bowling, for an hour or less a week, and 67% performed strenuous exercise, such as running or aerobics, for the same amount of time.)

Avery and the walkers who have joined her program are trying to beat the trend. She walks about two miles a day when she's in New York and up to three miles a day when she's at her summer home in Provincetown, Mass. "It's a thing you can do, if you need to do it, by yourself," says Avery, 62. "And it provides a solitary, meditative time to clear out the cobwebs of your mind."

Talking and Walking

Avery launched Walking for Wellness with the help of Wilma Rudolph, the legendary black sprinter who won three gold medals in the 1960 Olympics and died of brain cancer in 1995. The first walk took place in Eatonville, Fla., a tiny all-black town that is the home of the writer Zora Neale Hurston. Today, Walking for Wellness has groups in cities such as Houston, New Orleans, and New York.

For many black women, health problems "are just not something, traditionally, that you talk about," Avery says. But for women who walk with partners or in groups, walking offers a chance to discuss their health concerns, says Avery, who won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1989 for her work on community health issues and has served as a visiting fellow at the School of Public Health at Harvard University.

Akua Budu-Watkins, 51, can testify to the power of talking and walking: A project manager in Detroit, she says she has lost 30 pounds since she started walking regularly about two years ago.

More importantly, she's acquired a group of "walking sisters" who don't let her slack off even when things get rough. This happened recently when Budu-Watkins became overwhelmed by the demands of her job along with her role as primary caretaker for her 85-year-old mother and two aunts, aged 87 and 70.

After Budu-Watkins stopped showing up for her group walks, her "walking sisters" showed up at her office, clad in walking shoes and demanding to know when she was going to start exercising again.

The visit worked: Though it took a few weeks for Budu-Watkins to get back on track, now she walks twice a week in the neighborhood near her home in downtown Detroit. Sometimes it takes a sister, she says, to teach a black woman to pay attention to her own needs.

"What I've learned throughout the years is that we really negate ourselves," says Budu-Watkins. "We're so busy taking care of our children, our jobs, our man -- we don't take care of ourselves." That's where group walks can make all the difference.

Healthy Hearts

In addition to sponsoring local groups, Walking for Wellness and the American Heart Association stage annual walks to get out the word about walking and cardiovascular health. In June, walks took place in Baltimore; Atlanta; Columbus, Ohio; and Detroit.

The walks' organizers hope to counter the numbers shown in several recent studies. A July 1999 study of 218 black college students, in the Journal of the National Medical Association (the organization representing African-American physicians), found that young black women had lower levels of aerobic fitness compared with African-American men, as well as white and Hispanic women.

In addition, several recent studies have pointed to rising levels of obesity among young black women and adolescents, which may raise the risk of diabetes, coronary heart disease, and certain cancers. A nationwide study of more than 17,700 middle school and high school students in the June issue of Pediatrics found that African-American girls were particularly likely to be sedentary and thus potentially at greater risk for problems such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

Avery originally aimed her program at older black women, but recently several campuses of historically black colleges have formed chapters, including Southern University in Baton Rouge, La; Morgan University in Baltimore; and Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Eventually, she hopes to widen the program to include men as well.

The National Black Women's Health Project provides a resource kit with guidelines on how to form a walking group and tips such as stretching exercises. The kit is available by calling the NBWHP at (202) 543-9311 or visiting the group's web site at http://www.nbwhp.org.

Beatrice Motamedi is a health and medical writer based in Oakland, Calif., who has written for Hippocrates, Newsweek, Wired, and many other national publications.

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