Finding fitness, friendship, and lifestyle change on the road to community health
By Eliana Ifill
One of the hardest parts of doing physical activity is finding the confidence and motivation to start. It’s intimidating to make a big life change, and it can be easier to push it to the side.
People like community health workers (CHWs) and promotoras know how limiting this is. They see how older people and those who stay home live in isolation unless they take an intentional approach to improving their social lives. Inactivity can lead to all sorts of health problems, according to the American Heart Association, including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, cancers—and more. Active living is a topic we cover in many of the elearning courses at CHWTraining.
Public spaces also take a hit when individuals stay home: parks and streets are empty, and smaller roads can be neglected by local authorities. This makes it even harder for community members to step outside and take charge of their health.
In my case, I live near an industrial area. It was bustling with activity during business hours. But come 5 p.m. the roads were empty, the lights didn’t work, and the police had long left the streets.
Collaborating for an Active Community
I had come home to Venezuela after living in the U.S. for a while and didn’t have a steady job or other activities where I could meet people. This, combined with some personal challenges, made me start thinking about forming a fitness group of some sort. After all, I’ve been involved in one sport or another since college. Integrating physical activity as part of my daily life has always been important to me. And the lack of activity mixed with all the life changes and all the time spent at home was really taking a toll on my mental health.
I ran into (pun intended) another neighbor with a similar idea: She and her husband had made drastic lifestyle changes, and along with a friend they decided to try and promote sports in our small community.
I found them on Twitter and we decided to try forming a community running group design a short route around our neighborhood. We started very small–just the four of us–and soon, a lot of neighbors started joining us to run three times a week.
Eliana’s running group after a run.
How success spread across the community
We found that the safety and comfort provided by group activities helps keep people accountable while they build a habit for themselves, especially in older communities. Running with others is a powerful motivator.
Group activity like ours helps neighbors connect over shared interests; bond in new, meaningful ways; and regain confidence, purpose, and happiness in their lives.
My running group reached close to 80 people running together on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.
The demographics were wildly varied: there were a few of us in our early 20s, some in their mid-40s, and quite a few in their 60s and 70s. The younger ones often led the pack, going back and forth on our routes ensuring everyone was OK and no one was left behind.
And we had some experts: A trainer who led our warmups and HIIT classes on the weekends; a hiker who led our expeditions through the nearby mountains, and some yoga instructors. There was one man, Manuel, who worked in security for our community association and coordinated the team’s safety throughout the route, reminding everyone to bring reflective clothing, carrying radios and flashlights, and always counting heads before we left and after coming back.
We gathered local support and had police escorts on our routes, made T-shirts for the group, showed up in some radio interviews, and worked locally with churches and other initiatives.
Eliana’s running group in the orange T-shirts they had made.
Of course, the physical benefits were great. It was especially exciting to see those over 50 finishing their first races, shaving off minutes between 10ks, trying out yoga and hiking for the first time.
Many of the participants remain active to date (the group started in 2015 and Venezuela’s crisis made many of the original members move to other countries). Many of us remain close friends. We celebrated birthdays, went to theaters, had holiday parties, and supported each other through races and beyond.
More than simply exercising, we’d built a community based on friendship and common goals.
Skills to Motivate Lifestyle Change
CHWs and promotoras who work in neighborhoods that don’t lend themselves to physical activity can follow my lead and still make a difference. Training programs can provide the key skills they need to make meaningful change, especially among clients with chronic illnesses or high utilizers of emergency rooms.
It helps to understand how healthy eating and active living (HEAL) programs fit into health conditions like HIV/AIDS, diabetes, heart disease, and others. But to build a program that can lead to community change, here are some of the most important skill-building courses any agency should provide to their staff:
Promoting Healthy Lifestyles
Practicing healthy behaviors has a huge effect on a person’s life. Knowing the concepts behind maintaining a well-balanced and healthy lifestyle is the place to begin to work with clients to make positive changes and mange their life. The knowledge of what a healthy lifestyle is, including nutrition, fitness, preventative healthcare, and behavioral health, helps learners instruct clients on how to make a change for the better.
Community Outreach and Engagement
Outreach is the most essential part of building and strengthening communities so the people who live in them can take advantage of everything available. By learning the basic concepts and skills in community outreach, as well as strategies such as community needs assessments, learners can promote and even create better health services.
Advocacy Skills demonstrates ways to use advocacy to connect people to the most important resources in organizations, but also externally. They also learn how to involve the community at large in clients’ issues, educate community members, use media and social media, and organize change.
Motivational Interviewing: Peer Support for Behavior Change
Before anyone changes their health, they must want to. Training in Motivational Interviewing helps people find the lasting motivation to improve their health internally. These skills are especially useful for promoting healthy lifestyle changes, managing chronic diseases, and setting goals.
Behavioral Health Care
Physical activity has a close relationship with mental health. Understanding this relationship, as well as what the most common behavioral health conditions are, can help clients find resources and build external structures that help them improve.
Eliana Ifill is a content manager at CHWTraining.