SUMTER,SC — Even though Otis Butler was in relatively good shape for a man in his 60s, his health seemed to be dragging.
He didnt have the energy he used to have. He told his wife she should get him some vitamins or something when she went to the doctor.
But before his wifes next doctors appointment back in 2007, Butler joined many of his fellow church members in the Positive Action for Todays Health walking program in the south Sumter area.
After I started, I told her I dont need the vitamins no more, said Butler, now 70. I had a bigger stomach before I started walking, but then I knocked that down.
The PATH program in Sumter could serve as a blueprint for similar anti-obesity programs throughout the state. Find a way to start people walking as a social experience, make it easy and help them feel safe and they will stick with it, get healthier and save health care dollars.
The walking program, part of a larger study funded by a $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, was designed to gauge ways to get people walking in areas where they traditionally dont low income or rural communities.
Butler, who still walks regularly with various groups two years after the grant funding ran out, is emblematic of the programs success.
The study, reported in October in the American Journal of Public Health, detailed the effectiveness of social marketing. Thats not social media such as Twitter and Facebook, but throwback ideas such as themed calendars, door-hangers and notices in church bulletins. Many more walkers showed up and stuck with the programs in communities where social marketing was used, according to Dawn Wilson, a University of South Carolina psychology professor who focuses on health promotion.
In Sumter, the PATH grant also paid for two full-time and one part-time trained health workers who not only led walks but offered tips on everything from gear to warm-up routines. Sumters leaders did their part, sending maintenance crews to cut back shrubs and repair broken sidewalks.
The neighborhood near the Jehovah Missionary Baptist Church had a reputation for crime, so off-duty police were paid to walk with the group. The walkers encountered few problems, and groups that wanted to go out more often soon were striding the sidewalks without police escorts, Wilson said.
The PATH program really gained traction with a Pride Strides effort that encouraged churches to compete to see who could have the most walkers. A walk-and-talk series allowed participants to spend time on the sidewalks with local political and law enforcement leaders.
Though the grant funding ran out long ago, dozens of parents still come early to pick up children from the churchs M.H. Newton Family Life Enrichment Center after-school program so they have time to walk together in the neighborhood. Some of the original walkers have graduated to more intense Zumba and boot camp exercise regimens.
Not every community can afford the paid walk leaders and police presence funded by the grant, but the lesson from PATH is that a little investment done right can lead to long-term improvements in the number of people exercising.
The reason people came out the No. 1 reason was the social issue, Wilson said. Thats fundamental in all neighborhoods. Once people get out and get connected, the perceptions change.
Barney Gadson, director of the enrichment center, was surprised at how quickly people adopted the walking program.
It seemed to bring the community together, Gadson said. I was skeptical at first, but Im a firm believer now.