Walking paths’ success wins CDC recognition

A sign at Bay Haven School of Basics Plus in Sarasota offers information about the length of the walking path. Photos by Norman Schimmel

A program designed to improve Sarasota County residents’ health by encouraging them to walk for exercise has won national recognition.

Any day now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control will be putting a spotlight on the program, Forging Pathways to Health, on its website.

Suzanne Dubose, the Sarasota County Public Schools’ wellness coordinator, and Liz Bumpus, director of health promotion at the Sarasota County Health Department, are awaiting the official word on when their story will go up on the site, they told The Sarasota News Leader.

Bumpus received notification of the coming recognition about two months ago, she said. The goal of the national publicity is for the program to be replicated in other areas.

“It’s fulfilling to actually provide a product that is encouraging people to improve their health,” Bumpus said.

Forging Pathways to Health was born out of funding the CDC gave to the state, which it passed on to county health departments through a program called Healthy Communities, Healthy People, Bumpus said.

Almost 1,000 school employees have participated in the walking program, according to the Health Department and the school district.

A report on the initiative, which Bumpus and Dubose had prepared for state health officials, led to the CDC recognition. It points out that adult obesity rates have doubled since 1980. At the same time, obesity rates in children have tripled. Those increases, in turn, have led to higher health care costs, the report says, as obese individuals are at greater risk for breast, endometrial, prostate and colon cancers; depression; diabetes; heart disease and stroke; high blood pressure; and numerous other ailments.

The report says that in Sarasota County, “men were significantly more likely to be overweight (46.3%) than women (28%), although the likelihood of being obese did not differ much across gender.”

The walking path sign stands next to the sidewalk at Bay Haven School.

The county percentage of overweight adults increased from 32.3% in 2006 to 34.3% in 2010, the report adds, and the percentage of obese adults rose from 20.3% in 2006 to 21.2% in 2010.

With research having shown “that for every dollar spent on building biking trails and walking paths” about $3 could be saved on medical expenses, Health Department staff decided that walking trails “might be a starting solution to promote physical activity … to prevent and reduce obesity among all ages in Sarasota County,” the report notes.

Although the Health Department had been a partner with the school district for more than two decades on a number of health initiatives, the hiring of Dubose in 2008 led to an emphasis on walking at county schools, the report says. Principals “overwhelmingly embraced [the idea],” the report points out, as more than 60% of district staff had reported getting less than the recommended amount of physical activity each day.

Dubose worked at schools with staff members who were interested in the program to plan the routes, then measure and map the pathways. A Health Department graphic artist designed the signs for the routes, and a district Facilities Department staff member constructed them.

Each sign offers information about the distance of the available pathway and the positive impact walking can have on a person’s health.

“We’ve offered to share the templates for the signs,” Bumpus said.

The report notes that routes have been completed for 11 sites in the district. The exercise and walking paths “are listed in the top five of the Employee Interest Survey, and the signs are well received by staff, students and the community,” the report adds.

Dubose pointed out that some of the pathways are open to the public. Among them is the walkway at Bay Haven School of Basics Plus, in north Sarasota.

“It’s amazing how staff appreciates [the program], and it motivates them,” Dubose told the Sarasota County School Board during its May 15 work session.

The three paths created most recently in the district were at Emma E. Booker and Fruitville elementary schools in Sarasota and at Toledo Blade Elementary in North Port. They were completed between June 2011 and March, the report notes.

The report quotes Toledo Blade Principal Chris Renouf: “The Walking Path Signs created for Toledo Blade have been such an incredible hit!!!!” Who would have thought that just posting the signs, with no advance publicity, “would have generated such interest and positive buzz on campus amongst the students, their families and our staff?” Renouf added.

“It’s AMAZING and not uncommon to see kids of all ages huddled around the signs pointing to and discussing walking routes, distances, etc.,” Renouf wrote.

Six-week pedometer loan programs complement the walking routes, the report says.

When state health officials read their report on the success of the pathways program, Dubose said, their response was, “Wow! This is really cool.”

State officials then worked with her and Bumpus on some revisions, DuBose said, before forwarding the final version of the report to the CDC for its review.

“Partnerships are huge,” Dubose said, especially with tighter budgets over the past several years.

“It takes a small amount of money to make a difference,” Bumpus said.