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Effort to increase community exercise first step in larger plan

SONOMA COUNTY – A little more than a year after its creation, the diverse council of community leaders dubbed Health Action will do just that this spring, beginning implementation of the first project called iWalk.

Since October 2007, the council of health, government and education stakeholders has evaluated the local health profile, identified priorities, engaged the community and set benchmarks called “Vision 2020,” or goals for specific health indicators by the end of the next decade.

Now, with most of the preparation completed, the group identified 2009 as the year to initiate implementation, which will begin with an organized walking program to be officially unveiled in May.

During this month’s gathering, the group discussed the launch of iWalk as a way to create social support for physical activity and target one of their original goals to decrease obesity rates.

Government officials from Healdsburg, Cloverdale, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol and Windsor joined the council Feb. 6 to help organize the effort, along with new co-chair, Sonoma County Supervisor Valerie Brown.

“I believe the council has done a really phenomenal job so far,” Ms. Brown said.

“The [iWalk] program I think will be really effective.

“It meets our vision on several angles, and as far as implementation, you can really engage a lot of people, businesses, schools, community activities – everyone can participate in some way.”

Currently, several local communities have existing walking groups, but this initiative will seek to unite the message and coordinate efforts through city governments and organizations.

Ms. Brown said the group will likely begin the marketing campaign in March and April, then host iWalk launching events in each city beginning in May.

Health Action will at the same time formalize partnerships with several groups to further coordinate the program, including regional parks, the Open Space District and Sonoma County Transportation Authority. Other partnerships could incorporate local chambers, employers, schools, senior centers and health care organizations.

“Personally, I feel like this is a great initiative for a lot of reasons. It’s something you don’t need equipment for, it’s an ongoing social kind of event, anyone can do it,” said Jo Sandersfeld, Health Action member and vice president of mission integration for St. Joseph Health of Sonoma County.

“It also has linkages to other groups and initiatives – combating child obesity, employee wellness programs, maybe even encouraging more walking trails or parks.”

Health Action structured the program after a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Partners for Prevention model and recently hired a public relations consultant to disseminate the iWalk banner.

According to a community-based walking program action guide by the CDC, social support groups can increase time spent in an activity by 44 percent and frequency of involvement by 20 percent. To implement an effective program, the guide suggests nominating and training walking group leaders as well as identifying specific walking maps and timelines.

Health Action described its implementation process in four main steps: branding the program, promoting existing walking groups, adding more groups and finally, increasing the “walkability” of the county through public projects. The program will also have an iWalk Web site and online toolkit.

During the recent meeting, Health Action members suggested fostering community buy-in by targeting specific groups including hikers, dog walkers, history walks and tourism-based groups.