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Program promotes exercise, Georgia

POSTED: March 6, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The University of Georgia and Hall County Cooperative Extension Service are inviting you to take a walk across the state.

Well, sort of. The agencies are launching Walk Georgia, a free, interactive program that allows people to document how much they exercise, convert the number of calories burned into number of miles walked, and plot a virtual trip through Georgia.

"You don’t have to walk. You can swim or garden or whatever you want to do," said Hall County Extension agent Debbie Wilburn. "The Web site will translate your physical activity into miles."

Online registration has begun for the eight-week program, which runs March 2 through April 30. Participants will try to meet a goal of at least 15 "miles" per week. They can register individually or as part of a four-person team.

"The ultimate objective is to get people moving," Wilburn said. "Once you’ve done something for eight weeks, it starts to become a habit."

Wilburn said the virtual tour and calorie-
conversion features are not on the Walk Georgia Web site yet, but they will be posted by the time the program begins March 2.

"As you ‘walk’ through Georgia, you’ll see fun facts pop up about the counties that you’re traveling through," she said.

The project is an attempt to address Georgia’s problems with obesity, diabetes and other health issues associated with sedentary lifestyles.

In some ways, it parallels another project already under way locally. The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce is trying to promote community wellness by holding a "Get Fit Stay Fit" 5K walk/run on March 20. People who signed up for the 5K earlier this year got a free eight-week membership to the YMCA so they could train for the event.

Walk Georgia is different because there’s no actual race. But Wilburn said people training for the 5K can count that activity toward Walk Georgia. And even people who aren’t planning to race can have an element of competition.

"With a team, you’ll set team goals. Instead of each person doing 15 miles a week, you have a group goal of 60 miles," Wilburn said. "It kind of sets up peer pressure because if you don’t do your exercise, someone else has to make up your miles."

Joining a team is also helpful for someone who doesn’t have a home computer.

"Only the team captain has to have Internet access," she said.

And Walk Georgia is open to people of all ages, Wilburn said. She’s planning to form a team comprising herself, her husband, her 10-year-old niece and her 70-year-old mother.

Wilburn has been working with local businesses and government agencies, encouraging them to promote Walk Georgia to their employees. It’s a natural fit for companies that are interested in setting up worker wellness programs.

Northeast Georgia Medical Center is using its weekly in-house newsletter to get the word out to its approximately 4,000 employees. Judy Turk, manager of employee benefits and services for Northeast Georgia Health System, said Walk Georgia ties in nicely with what the hospital is already doing.

"We offer a program for our employees called Wellness Works, to make them aware of how important it is to live a healthy lifestyle," Turk said. "Since people spend most of their waking hours at work, this is the best place to reach them with that message."

She said the program includes separate groups for managing weight, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

"We have found that a team approach works well," she said. "If you put four to six people together, they hold each other accountable. For example, in our weight-loss group, ‘Thinner Takes All,’ each team member knows if the others are sticking with their diets."

Having any type of wellness program can help a company reduce its health care costs, Turk said.

"But that’s not the only reason we do it. People who are in good physical condition are happier, they feel good about themselves, and they make better employees."



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