ANN ARBOR—Statistics show Detroit residents are 1.65 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than other Americans. A group of 603 Detroiters challenged those odds by joining an organized walking program to improve their cardiovascular health. And it worked, University of Michigan researchers say. Participants improved their heart health—many of them substantially.
The program is part of a three-year Walk Your Heart to Health study and health intervention developed by the Healthy Environments Partnership (HEP), a collaboration between the U-M School of Public Health and several Detroit community organizations and health and human service agencies focused on improving health equity in Detroit.
The goal of HEP's walking initiative was to increase physical activity of Detroiters, primarily African Americans or Hispanics/Latinos.
"Fewer than half of Americans meet recommended guidelines for adequate physical activity, and sedentary lifestyles are a leading contributor to mortality in the U.S.," said U-M SPH professor Amy J. Schulz, principal investigator of the study and primary author of a related research article published in Health Behavior & Education (online edition).
"Walking is great exercise, but it can be challenging to walk in some urban areas due to sidewalk conditions, safety concerns and other issues. But participants in this program in Detroit have proven that you can, indeed, improve your health and wellbeing through walking, particularly if you have a support system."
As Walk Your Heart to Health participants, different cohorts of Detroiters from primarily low-income neighborhoods walked together for at least 50 minutes, three days a week. After eight weeks, 540 people (out of 603) were still actively participating, most of whom dramatically reduced multiple indicators of cardiovascular risk, such as blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose, and Body Mass Index (BMI). More than half the walkers remained with the program for an additional 24 weeks and maintained these health improvements.
Walk Your Heart to Health Participant Loreather Berry, who has struggled with diabetes, was one success story. She brought her blood sugar and blood pressure down to normal levels. Berry said the support of her co-walkers was key.
"The walking program was life changing for me," she said. "I am now the healthiest I've ever been and I went from a size 20 down to 14. If it weren't for my group, I wouldn't be where I am today. They motivated me and they didn't give up on me. Now I love walking."
HEP Steering Committee member Zachary Rowe, executive director of Friends of Parkside, elaborates on the value of walking in the Motor City.
"People in our community tend to have less time for leisure-time physical activity but, based on health statistics, they are just the ones who need it most," he said. "It's great to see more and more Detroiters getting out to walk. After all, it costs nothing, and it's clearly very good for you."
Although the research component took place between 2009 and 2012, HEP continues to offer the free Walk Your Heart to Health program, which was made possible with support from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. The program offers training for community members to serve as walking group coordinators and supplies pedometers for participants.
"I am so proud of the walkers, and they are rightfully really proud of themselves," said HEP community outreach coordinator Cindy Gamboa. "Most of them have become physically fit, boosted their energy levels, and even forged some incredible new friendships and support networks. It really has been a gift to see so many positive outcomes and transformations."
Established in 2000, HEP is an affiliated partnership of the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center (Detroit URC), which promotes the use of community-based participatory research to improve health equity in Detroit. HEP's partners include the Detroit Eastside Community Collaborate, Detroit Hispanic Development Corp.; Eastside Community Network; Friends of Parkside; Henry Ford Health System; Institute for Population Health; and University of Michigan School of Public Health.