SANDPOINT — Taking a brisk walk on a regular basis can help fight chronic diseases, maintain healthy weight, and has a variety of other benefits.
In its 2015 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one out of every two adults in the United States are living with chronic disease. Chronic disease is defined as any disease lasting more than three months and includes ailments such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Suzanne Tugman with Kaniksu Land Trust began working with Bonner County practitioners in September last year, encouraging them to write prescriptions to get people walking with a program dubbed "ParkRx." The program is aimed at people of all ages and health levels, with the goal of getting them outside to walk the local trail systems.
"We are on our computers all day long, we are on our phones all day long, we are always looking down at this technology," Tugman said. "Our youth of today, we are actually seeing some scientific evidence that, because they aren't getting outdoors we are starting to see physiological changes in the way that people are developing. We are also seeing that our health is diminishing and research is starting to show that when we get people outside into nature, the way the outdoor elements are affecting the brain actually helps us with depression and increases our health."
Jane Hoover, a nurse practitioner with Family Health Center in Sandpoint, writes ParkRx prescriptions regularly for her patients. Many of the people she prescribes to are elderly patients who think they can't get the exercise they need, but also patients with diabetes and mothers with children.
"It's one of the most refreshing things to come up in healthcare in a while," Hoover said. "I get so tired of pushing pills, and you have got to keep people moving — you can not control chronic illness without people moving. It's impossible.
Hoover said the benefits of the program include weight loss, strength and balance. She said exercise is better than any medication for people with diabetes. Other benefits include emotional benefits from being outdoors, moving around and socializing in a non-intimidating environment. Patients are given a prescription and put into groups with people who's physical abilities are close to their own, so they never walk alone — and Hoover's patients rave about the walking coach, Sue Lopez, who never leaves anyone behind.
Around 300 Bonner County residents have received prescriptions to walk through the ParkRx program. While some ignore it, the program has been beneficial to those who participate. Hoover said patients told her they saw improvement, a couple of whom said being held accountable for the activity made all the difference.
One patient, in an email Hoover shared with the Daily Bee, said she was "hooked on gold stars" in first grade and the program is "great" for those who need external motivation.
Tugman said one of the biggest challenges has been the weather. As the weather turned cold and the snow began to fall last year, many people dropped out. One of Hoover's patients said she felt herself getting stronger, but stopped walking after the weather turned cold. She did some indoor fitness, but as Tugman pointed out, part of the idea of the program is the outdoors, getting people into natural light and fresh air. Hoover also said that nature can help people emotionally as well as physical exercise.
Tugman said they are working with the parks and recreations department to keep trails walkable in the wintertime. Seniors will be moved indoors this winter when it is icy, however. Transportation is available to the trails as well with the SPOT bus, which operates in Dover, Sandpoint, Ponderay and Kootenai.
"They are working toward diminishing the barriers that keep people from getting out — transportation, proper shoes, clothing," Hoover said.
Tugman said there are seven "Story Walks" up around the county to engage children. Children's books were dismantled and set up along some of the trails, such as Dover Bay, and the kids can read on as they walk from one page to the next.
Kaniksu Land Trust is a nonprofit organization that promotes land conservation and hosts programs to encourage communities to connect with nature and the outdoors. Since Tugman began working with the organization 18 months ago, she has worked to create programs such as an outdoor education program at Clark Fork Junior-Senior High School as well as the ParkRx program.
A couple years ago the national organization, the Land Trust Alliance, chose five land trusts across the nation to try community conservation. Kaniksu Land Trust is one of the elected land trusts being studied by the national organization to determine what the impact is on the community and conservation. Tugman is working with the national pilot study and regularly reports back to Washington, D.C., and the Surgeon General.
The Surgeon General's call to action in 2015 asks people to "Step it Up!" and promote walking and walkable communities.
The trails are split up into levels. For example, level one is "couch to curb," with paved surfaces and easy access to benches, parking and restrooms, such as Dover City Park and Sandpoint City Beach. Level two is also paved surfaces with benches, restroom and points of interest that may be a bit farther away than the level one trails, such as Travers Park or the Long Bridge pedestrian path. Level three trails are unpaved and may have some uneven surfaces. The Pend d'Oreille Bay Trail is a level three trail.
Hoover said, for example, she will write a prescription for a 30-minute walk every day on a level two trail. But each prescription is unique and the goal for many people is 10,000 steps a day.
Tugman said another benefit of the program is clean up of the trails, because people pick up garbage as they walk and the cleaner it is the less likely others will throw their garbage on the ground.
"It actually engages people to care more about their environment," Tugman said.
The program is working toward an upcoming event on Sept. 11 called "Weathering the Elements," where participants can choose between a 3K or 5K obstacle course. The event is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the University of Idaho-Sandpoint, rain or shine. ParkRx participants can join in for free; they will also receive a free T-shirt, sponsored by Bonner General Health. Others can register for the obstacle course for a small fee.
"There are so many people who got a prescription that are not in groups, so we need to pull them back in," Tugman said.
Anyone can join a walking group, with or without a prescription. For information contact a practitioner, Sandpoint Parks and Recreation or the walking coach, Sue Lopez, at 208-290-1595.
Information: kaniksulandtrust.org or 208-263-947