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Georgia state parks: More fun than a treadmill

Get Outdoors Georgia campaign offers natural alternative to gyms

POSTED: June 13, 2008 5:01 a.m.

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Though it’s being marketed with a goofy gopher mascot, a new state parks initiative has a serious goal: helping Georgians improve their health.

On Monday afternoon in Savannah, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced the Get Outdoors Georgia campaign, an effort to promote state parks not just as a place for picnics but as an opportunity to exercise.

With the slogan "Get out, get dirty, get fit," the program aims to get folks off the couch and into the wild.

"You can get an annual (state parks) pass for $30 for the entire year," said Jessica James, recreation director at Unicoi State Park near Helen. "Compare that to how much you’d spend every month at a health club."

Kim Hatcher, spokeswoman for Georgia State Parks, said outdoor exercise is a full sensory experience, not drudgery.

"Climbing down into a canyon is a lot more fun than a treadmill," she said.

And that experience is more accessible than people might think.

"No matter where you are in Georgia, you’re within an hour of a state park," Hatcher said. "Gas prices haven’t affected us. People are just going to parks closer to home."

Some Georgians buy an annual pass and use their nearby state park the way some people would use a neighborhood community center.

"There was a guy at Amicalola (Falls State Park) who lost 45 pounds by walking up and down the steps (to the waterfall) every day," Hatcher said.

Gainesville resident Tammy Teston doesn’t have a state park in her backyard, but she visits them as often as she can.

"Back in the fall, I had put on some weight," she said. "I just have never been a gym person. When it comes to exercise, I get bored easily. I started Googling outdoor activities, and I found the Georgia parks Web site."

Teston bought an annual pass and began exploring the parks. Soon, she began to notice an improvement in her fitness level.

"I have lost about 35 pounds so far, with another 20 to go," she said. "I’ve just gotten into the habit of whenever anybody comes in from out of town to visit, I take them hiking."

Teston also paid $10 to join the Canyon Climbers Club. Participants attempt challenging hikes at Amicalola, Providence Canyon, Cloudland Canyon, and Tallulah Gorge. After completing each climb, they get their card stamped, and when they’ve hiked all four, they get an "I did it!" T-shirt.

The parks system has a similar program for mountain bikers, the Muddy Spokes Club, which involves riding bike trails at 11 parks.

Teston did her four climbs between November and April.

"I definitely feel like I earned that shirt," she said.

Though these programs already existed, Hatcher said most people didn’t know about them. So the state has created a new Web site, www.getoutdoorsgeorgia.org, that makes it easier for people to learn about recreational opportunities. It includes links to the Canyon Climbers and Muddy Spokes clubs, as well as to an expanded Junior Ranger program.

To kick off awareness about Get Outdoors, admission to Georgia state parks will be free June 14. Normally, visitors are charged a parking fee of $3 per car at most sites. Hatcher said the state won’t lose any revenue, because Coca-Cola has agreed to underwrite the event.

"We’ve asked every park to do something special that day," she said.

Though Get Outdoors Georgia is a program of the Department of Natural Resources, it has some of the same goals as Live Healthy Georgia, a campaign from the Department of Human Resources. The latter encourages people to get in shape through diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes.

Studies show that about two-thirds of Georgia adults are overweight or obese, and the majority get no exercise at all. Many of Georgia’s children are growing up with the same unhealthy habits.

Debbie Wilburn, family and consumer science agent with the Hall County Extension Service, spends much of her time trying to counteract this trend. She said she was happy to hear about the Get Outdoors Georgia campaign.

"I’m all for it," she said. "Children need to run, jump, swim. They need activity in order to develop physically, mentally and emotionally."

Hatcher said the state parks also are trying to battle the so-called "nature deficit disorder" among children raised on video games.

"Kids have lost their connection to the outdoors," she said. "In many cases, the only time kids are outside is for organized sports."

To make it easier for low-income families to get out into the woods, Hatcher said public libraries in Georgia will soon be offering a seven-day park pass that people can check out, just like checking out a book.

Teston said she hopes once people learn what state parks have to offer, they’ll become regular users.

"I’ve done some really fun things since I started going to the parks," she said. "There’s so much available for people of any age. And the cost is minimal compared to any other type of entertainment."



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