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Walking the Walk

The Best Exercise
By
WebMD Feature

Nov. 20, 2000 -- Byllye Avery was in a New York cab, heading to a lunchtime appointment, when she noticed who was crowding the sidewalk: Many African-American women, she says -- walking, striding, hurrying to do their errands as the lunch hour ticked by.

Seeing other black women on foot 10 years ago gave Avery the idea for a program that has grown to 25 cities nationwide and has touched the lives of as many as 10,000 women. Called Walking for Wellness, the program encourages women to walk daily or several times a week, with a partner or in small groups. No fancy equipment is required, and most any location will do, including office hallways, city streets, public parks -- even the local mall.

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"It's easy for most able-bodied people to do and it doesn't cost much -- all you need is a good pair of shoes," says Avery, who is also the founder of the National Black Women's Health Project, a group that provides information and resources to African-American women.

Such health campaigns come amid clinical studies that show that when it comes to exercise, African-American women just aren't getting as much as they need. A January 2000 study of 64,524 black women in the journal Preventive Medicine found low levels of physical activity among women aged 21 to 69 , with 57% reporting that they spent an hour or less per week walking for exercise. (Eighteen percent engaged in moderate exercise, such as gardening or bowling, for an hour or less a week, and 67% performed strenuous exercise, such as running or aerobics, for the same amount of time.)

Avery and the walkers who have joined her program are trying to beat the trend. She walks about two miles a day when she's in New York and up to three miles a day when she's at her summer home in Provincetown, Mass. "It's a thing you can do, if you need to do it, by yourself," says Avery, 62. "And it provides a solitary, meditative time to clear out the cobwebs of your mind."

Talking and Walking

Avery launched Walking for Wellness with the help of Wilma Rudolph, the legendary black sprinter who won three gold medals in the 1960 Olympics and died of brain cancer in 1995. The first walk took place in Eatonville, Fla., a tiny all-black town that is the home of the writer Zora Neale Hurston. Today, Walking for Wellness has groups in cities such as Houston, New Orleans, and New York.

For many black women, health problems "are just not something, traditionally, that you talk about," Avery says. But for women who walk with partners or in groups, walking offers a chance to discuss their health concerns, says Avery, who won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1989 for her work on community health issues and has served as a visiting fellow at the School of Public Health at Harvard University.

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