Walking expert talks to students about health

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Thompson - posted Tue., May. 3, 2011
Robert Sweetgall spoke to a crowded auditorium at Thompson Middle School. Photo by D. Coffey.
Robert Sweetgall spoke to a crowded auditorium at Thompson Middle School. Photo by D. Coffey.

National walking expert Robert Sweetgall spoke to an auditorium packed with more than 400 Thompson Middle School students on April 27. His message was that just a few minutes of walking at the start of a school day will set the perfect mood for learning and life.

“Starting the school day with a 10-minute walk is the most valuable 10 minutes in a child’s and teacher’s life,” Sweetgall said. “There’s nothing more important than that. There’s nothing that even comes close. It’s like putting a good foundation down for a house.”

Sweetgall was in northeastern Connecticut to visit staff and students at schools in Plainfield, Danielson, Thompson and Woodstock to explain the WriteSteps School Walking Initiative. He also hosted a community presentation on the health benefits of recreational walking to Plainfield residents.

Sweetgall was preaching exercise, but he was also talking about living a healthy lifestyle. He peppered his talk with facts about obesity in America, how much a smoker spends on cigarettes in a lifetime, and how much better a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is than one that relies on fast food meals. He showed the students a slide of what a heart looks like after a lifetime diet rich in fat. He also showed them a picture of an emphysema patient's lung: It wasn't pretty.

“It all starts with yourself,” he told the young crowd. “Whatever you do, the one thing that’s important is your health. Respect your body. Being good citizens brings with it the responsibility to behave in certain ways.”

For Sweetgall, a 10-minute walking start to a day is just the beginning. He wanted the students to think of ways to convince their parents to join them for walks after dinner. “How many of you think your parents are too serious and can use a good walk after dinner?” he asked a boisterous crowd. He suggested teachers have their students write a 100-word essay to persuade parents to do just that.

Sweetgall has walked across America seven times. He has walked through every state in the union. In one year, he traveled 11,208 miles. For 19 years, he’s been keeping an activity log, and by his own estimates has averaged about 40 miles of walking a week in that time. “That’s about 2,000 miles a year, about 400,000 since 1991,” he said. He is the author of 17 books on wellness and walking. It has given him a certain notoriety where walking and health are concerned. And it has convinced him, along with scientific research, that someone who maintains an active lifestyle lives longer, is healthier and has a better quality of life.

“Only in America, where we’re stressed out with a ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy, do we forget that we need exercise,” he said. “They do it in almost every other country where their test scores are way above ours.”

Sweetgall challenged his audience to make little adjustments in their schedules to incorporate activity throughout the day. Park your car far from the door to the grocery store, he said to the adults in the audience. Walk, instead of taking the elevator.

“I would challenge any rural school to try this for a week and see if it doesn’t make a difference,” he said.

Funding for Sweetgall’s visit was made possible by the HealthQuest ACHIEVE grant, an NDDH Obesity Prevention grant, and the Plainfield Recreation Department’s Backus Hospital Obesity grant. All students were given pedometers at the end of the presentation, so they could keep track of their steps.

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