- Associated Press - Sunday, February 21, 2016

BELMONT, W.Va. (AP) - Crystal Lorimor of Belmont does not want her neighbors to have to walk a mile in the shoes of her dad, who died last May of complications from diabetes. To that end, she does want them to walk a mile - literally - around the village, and she has sought out resources to make it easier for them to do so.

At the heart of Lorimor’s project is the placement of 10 benches around the village’s 1-mile walking loop that begins at the old Belmont School. The benches, along with signs and prizes for participants in a two-month walking program, are being funded by a $2,500 “Belmont Walkability” grant in partnership with the Ohio State University Extension Office in Belmont County. The grant was one of many awarded last month by the Smith-Goshen-Rice Enrichment Fund through the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley.

It may seem counterintuitive that erecting benches would promote physical activity, but Lorimor’s bench idea germinated when she was helping her mother, Barbara, care for her father, Joe, at their St. Clairsville home and at her home in Belmont. The doctors encouraged her dad to get out and walk, but it was a catch-22: His poor physical condition - the reason they wanted him to exercise - made it difficult for him to do so.

“He was making an effort, but it was a struggle. There were times he would have to sit on a fire hydrant to rest,” Lorimor said.

When she returned to her Belmont neighborhood after her father’s death, she discovered two neighbors had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes while she was away. She had read somewhere about someone putting out a bench to give walkers a place to rest, so she put one in her front yard with a sign that reads: “Walkers’ Rest Stop.” It was a way to honor her dad and help others, she said.

“Maybe they don’t need to actually use the bench, but it’s a sign of someone encouraging them,” Lorimor said. “It’s there if they need it.”

Then she thought, if one bench is helpful, wouldn’t more be even better?

“I wanted to have more benches available so folks could have a loop and gradually build up and have that safety net,” she said.

She took her idea to Polly Loy, the Extension’s family and consumer sciences agent, who has spearheaded several walking programs in the county over the last decade. Loy wrote a grant that included 10 benches - to be constructed by Belmont Correctional Institute inmates to save money - and an eight-week walking program from May through June. She will send weekly emails with fitness and nutrition tips, and walkers will log their miles and turn them in for incentives. Four times during the program, group walks will be scheduled, led by a local health professional, such as a physical therapist.

“The goal,” Loy said, “is to make it easier for people to make the healthier choice by changing their environment.”

These types of environmental improvements are being touted by the U.S. Surgeon General. In his Call to Action last fall, titled “Step It Up,” Dr. Vivek H. Murthy encourages walking and the creation of walkable communities as a way to fight chronic disease in the U.S.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, 1 in 5 Ohioans reported living with two or more chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and pulmonary disease. People with more than one chronic disease generally are in poorer health and have higher rates of disability than those with one or no chronic disease. One objective of Ohio’s Chronic Disease Plan to combat these rates is to reduce risk factors, including obesity and physical inactivity.

In Belmont County, 31.4 percent of the population are overweight and 32 percent are obese, while 29.3 percent report being inactive.

“People who are physically active have about a 30 percent lower risk of early death than people who are inactive. Even low amounts of physical activity reduce this risk,” Murthy writes in his Call to Action.

In addition to preventing and reducing the effects of chronic disease, benefits of physical activity include extending years of independence, reducing functional limitations, reducing the risk of falls, delaying cognitive decline and improving emotional well-being, he says.

Lorimor said she always “fancied herself a hiker,” and she has enjoyed walking throughout her adult life, but the 41-year-old said she really started keeping track of her exercise habits after befriending Pete Huttlinger, a singer from Nashville who had visited the Ohio Valley to perform at several venues, including the home of Lorimor’s musician boyfriend, Kim Butler. In 2010, Huttlinger suffered a major stroke and in 2011, major heart failure, but he rallied to walk in the Nashville half-marathon one year later. On his Facebook page, Huttlinger asked his friends around the world to walk with him in solidarity. So Lorimor and about a dozen friends walked a half-marathon on Wheeling Heritage Trail - from Heritage Port to the Pike Island Locks & Dam and back.

“After that, I started keeping track of my distances,” Lorimor said. “I’m just always trying to find some other challenge.” She and Butler hiked from Grand Canyon rim to the bottom and back up. She and her friend Mary Ann Edwards completed a 31-mile hiking challenge. She, Edwards and friend Rhonda Tysk together walked the Ogden Newspapers Half-Marathon Classic in 2014 and 2015.

On a daily basis, the West Liberty University employee walks at lunch with co-workers Tysk and Stephanie North.

And at home in Belmont, she can be seen many evenings walking with her little buddy from down the street, 4-year-old Ania. Ania has her own water battle and loves to sing while she walks, Lorimor said. Ania’s been walking with her since she was 3, and she will be 5 in April. She knows all the neighbor’ names, and their pets’ names.

“She can easily do 3 miles,” Lorimor said.

From time to time, however, Ania needs to stop for a rest - sometimes on a tree stump or a neighbor’s front steps, sometimes on Lorimor’s bench.

“She’s entertaining. The time goes so quickly. There are times she gets me out the door. When you have a 3- or 4-year-old asking, you go out the door.”

Lorimor said her neighbors have always encouraged her in whatever walking or hiking challenge, asking her about the next one and how her training is going. She sees this new program as a way to give back to them.

“If we can get people to realize all they have to do is try to put one step farther tomorrow than they did today, …” Lorimor said.

“It’s wonderful because it’s already affecting lives, because I’ve already had people say, ‘I don’t have any excuses now,’ and ‘I’m getting ready for the walking program,’” she said.

Lorimor said current walkers and new walkers are encouraged to join. The more experienced group can work on increasing their distance or decreasing their time.

“They can just be there to support the other folks because that encouragement is important.”

Loy added: “This project has the potential to affect Belmont residents on many levels. It will start with getting them up and moving and hopefully generate more interest in all things that will help them become more healthy. I also think there is a great opportunity for the community to rally around this effort and become more unified.”

Loy said she is pleased the Smith-Goshen-Rice fund decided to award the grant.

“I think that it is a great thing that this fund - a combination of contributions from Rice Energy and local landowners - is focusing on making a difference in our communities. Belmont County has seen a huge influx of money to individuals, and the people involved with this fund are intent on giving something back. They understand the importance of philanthropy and the difference they can make for others through their contributions.”

Gabe Hays, a member of the fund’s board, said: “It’s just nice to be able to help folks who need assistance.” He added he hopes others will contribute to the fund so gifts like this can be made long into the future, not just in the here and now.

Said Loy: “This would never have happened if not for one person - Crystal - thinking that she could make a difference. I know people in Belmont are getting excited about it and looking forward to participating. I hope that this effort might just be a pilot which we can use to encourage other communities to try something similar.”


Information from: Wheeling News-Register, https://www.news-register.net

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