ISU program aims to support healthy aging through walking

Ames, IA — The benefits of walking are staggering. Along with lowering blood pressure, burning calories and strengthening bones, taking more steps on a regular basis can improve sleep and cognitive functioning. Walking also has one of the lowest injury rates of any form of exercise – and it’s free.

Still, developing any new exercise habit, especially later in life, can be a challenge. That’s why Iowa State researchers are studying how adding personalized health coaches, training modules and accountability reminders to an evidence-based walking program can help seniors incorporate more steps into their daily lives. The researchers’ ongoing virtual format and the re-launch of their in-person programming this month aims to support healthy aging across Iowa.

“Whether it’s minimizing your disease risk or improving your quality of life to maintain your independence or play with your grandkids longer, exercise has numerous benefits, and one of the best places to start is walking more,” said Nick Lamoureux, a Ph.D. candidate in kinesiology who leads the programming.

Walk with Ease

The Arthritis Foundation originally developed the Walk with Ease program to help people manage arthritis pain, improve balance and strength, and stay active. People who enroll in the six-week program walk with a group or on their own for 10-40 minutes, three times a week and learn how to safely add physical activity into their day.

Previous research on Walk with Ease shows program participants experience modest to moderate improvements in pain, fatigue, stiffness, strength and balance.

“There’s already good evidence showing the original Walk with Ease program can help people. We’re working to optimize its effects and make it more accessible,” said Lamoureux.

As part of that effort, Lamoureux and the research team have opened enrollment for their enhanced version of the Walk with Ease program, which includes group walking sessions led by ISU student health coaches at the Ames Fitness Center and Lifetime Fitness Center in Story City. The sessions start on Jan. 31, but participants can join the program on a rolling basis.

The student health coaches have completed practicum courses in the kinesiology department as well as training specific to the Walk with Ease program. They help participants identify their personal goals and motivations and learn how to build habit-forming skills.

The ISU researchers originally launched their enhanced Walk with Ease program in the fall of 2019 on the ISU campus, but at the onset of COVID-19, they transitioned to a virtual format with personalized health coaching over the phone. The researchers are continuing the virtual option for participants across Iowa but say they are excited to relaunch the in-person, group sessions for residents in Story County. Ultimately, the researchers aim to evaluate the effectiveness of different formats and enhancements to the original Walk with Ease program for older adults.

While the in-person group sessions support social connections and accountability, the virtual program also offers advantages. In addition to the over-the-phone health coach consultations, participants in the virtual program receive weekly accountability reminders through an online portal to help stay on track with their walking goals. They can update their goals, track their progress, and watch short videos to learn more about walking.

Partnering with Mary Greeley Medical Center

Falls are the primary cause of trauma for people who go to the emergency department at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames. Last year, the ED received around 570 patients injured from falls compared to approximately 120 patients from motor vehicle collisions.

As part of Mary Greeley’s effort to reduce fall injuries, health care professionals have been working with the researchers to expand the reach of the ISU Walk with Ease program. Emergency department staff in December started screening patients at high risk of fall injuries and referring them to the ISU program. The medical center is in the process of integrating the referral system into its electronic medical record system, allowing physicians in other departments to easily refer patients to the program.

“Keeping people active and moving is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of falls,” said Matt Petersen, director of Rehab & Wellness at Mary Greeley Medical Center. “Walk With Ease is a great community-based program appropriate for most people to maintain and increase their mobility.”

Petersen said Mary Greeley looks forward to working with ISU and Story City to bring the in-person Walk with Ease program to the medical center’s Lifetime Fitness Center.

A model for Iowa

The researchers view the ISU programming in Ames and Story City as an opportunity to determine best practices and provide a training hub to benefit communities across the state.

“In addition to delivering the local program, we are working to build capacity to train leaders in other settings to deliver both the virtual and in-person versions of Walk with Ease in their own communities,” said Gregory Welk, Barbara E. Forker Professor in Kinesiology and coordinator of the overall project.

How to enroll

Ames and Story City residents interested in the in-person programming are required to have approval from a health care provider to document that they are a good candidate for the program and are safe to begin exercising. Once this is received, the research team explains the program, and helps get the participants enrolled in the Institutional Review Board’s approved study by providing informed consent documentation and answering any questions participants may have.

The programming at Lifetime Fitness Center in Story City and the Ames Fitness Center is free for the first six weeks. Participants can choose to get memberships at the fitness centers if they want to keep coming back to stay involved in the walking groups after completing the program.

Participants outside Story County can enroll in the virtual ISU program through a CHPcommunity HUB navigator. They’ll receive a Walk with Ease guidebook and connect with an ISU health coach who will provide support over the phone.

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