Walk It Out! Urban Walking Trails for Seniors in Harlem

October 1, 2015, Department, by Amparo Abel-Bey, MPH, Monique Hedmann, MPH, and Anna Tan, BSPH

Learn how NYC Parks and Harlem Hospital Center are helping African-American seniors in Harlem enjoy a physically and socially healthier lifestyle.The Walk It Out! program, a Healthy Heart Program funded by the New York State Department of Health, is a comprehensive physical activity program for older adults aged 50 and above in Harlem. This innovative and exciting program arose in response to a need for senior fitness program that would be available and easily accessible for seniors in Harlem. 

Walk It Out! Beginnings

Harlem, a historically African- American community in New York City, has established rates of higher morbidity and mortality for various health conditions. A review of New York City Health and Mental Hygiene Vital Statistics and National Vital Statistics for 2006 indicates that cardiovascular disease is the single largest contributor to excess mortality in Harlem. Incidence rates for obesity in Harlem are the highest in New York City, with obesity affecting one in four adults in Central Harlem and one in three adults in East Harlem. Moreover, diabetes rates are among the highest in the city, with 13 percent of the adults in East Harlem affected by the disease and 12 percent of the adults in Central Harlem, compared to 7 percent in Manhattan and 9 percent in New York City overall.

In addition, adults over the age of 65 are one of the fastest growing populations in industrialized nations throughout the world and have the highest rates of chronic illness, disability and health care utilization. It has been clearly demonstrated that regular physical activity is an important factor in the promotion of “successful aging” and prevention of debilitating chronic illnesses and injuries among older adults. 

Faced with the combination of a growing adult population and the various health problems in Harlem, it was clear that a suitable fitness program for older African-American adults was needed. As a result, a park trail-based walking program formed as a joint project of NYC Parks and Harlem Hospital Center. Two key locations, Marcus Garvey Park and Morningside Park, were chosen as sites for development of urban walking trails. Walking is a big part of life in New York, and in various focus groups, seniors noted that having access to quality trails increased their sense of safety, as the terrain is more walkable and they would not encounter traffic from cars or bicyclists. 

Walking Trails at Marcus Garvey and Morningside Parks

Marcus Garvey Park, which has a number of benefits that make it an ideal location, was chosen for the first Walk It Out! trail. First and foremost, Marcus Garvey Park has tremendous historical and cultural significance for the Harlem community. Formerly known as Mount Morris Park and renamed after the Black Nationalist leader in 1973, Marcus Garvey Park is one of the oldest public spaces on the island of Manhattan, and has been a quintessential feature of the Harlem community for more than 150 years. Second, the park is square-shaped and features a pedestrian-friendly walking path loop just shy of a mile in length and positioned along the perimeter of the park. The majestic beauty of the Mount Morris rock formation, the landmark Fire Watchtower atop the rock, its surrounding trees and lawns, the park’s newly renovated amphitheater, dog run, Little League baseball field and the beautiful brownstones across from the park, among other features, are all visible from the walking path, providing attractive scenery for physical activity. Third, the park is conveniently located between East Harlem, a majority Hispanic community, and Central and West Harlem, majority African-American communities, making it accessible to both ethnic groups of older adults. 

 Morningside Park, which features a linear, pedestrian-friendly walking path instead of a loop, was chosen as the site of the second Walk It Out! trail. A number of features, including a pond filled with wildlife and a waterfall, make the park ideal for a walking trail. Developed with the Friends of Morningside Park, Inc. and Nancercize, the Walk It Out! trail includes banners to delineate distance markers, as well as suggest park bench-based exercises that passersby can incorporate into their walks, effectively making the park a “green gym.” 

Additionally, the Walk It Out! program provides opportunities for seniors to exercise and socialize with their peers. Walk It Out! places great emphasis on the building of social capital, which dwindles for many older adults overtime with the deaths of friends and loved ones. This is done by having free walking sessions offered six days a week year-round, led by peer instructors through a partnership with New York Road Runners (NYRR). The NYRR staff guide the seniors through a series of warm-up exercises, accompany them along the trail route, and finally, lead the seniors through some cool-down exercises and stretches at the conclusion of the walk during the course of 90 minutes. NYRR also sponsors various walk, run and race events, which help provide a goal toward which seniors can work during Walk It Out! sessions.

The Walk It Out! sessions served as a platform to develop related programs, such as the Dance of the Village Elders senior dance fitness class taught by an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater instructor, Shape Up NYC free fitness classes (offerings include Zumba, yoga and kickboxing) and Healthy Food Tours, where seniors walk to various local restaurants in Harlem, try food samples and learn about ways they can support healthy eating in their own neighborhood. 

Lastly, Walk It Out! utilizes an incentive-based model where participants receive various branded items like t-shirts, water bottles, pedometers, etc., as well as invitations to seasonal appreciation ceremonies and events over the course of their continued and consistent participation in the program. Through these diverse engagement efforts, participating seniors consistently attended Walk It Out! sessions, developed greater self-confidence and found social support, on top of easing pain and maximizing exercise efficiency through walking. 

Moving Forward

Walking trails are one of the best examples of a relatively inexpensive and sustainable initiative that enhances and encourages outdoor physical activity in highly sedentary communities. Walking trails also add to the aesthetics of the community by providing a new landmark destination and boosting neighborhood pride. It is important to remember, however, that walking trail initiatives must involve the agreeable collaboration of invested community entities and must incorporate input from residents. Future endeavors in other environments, including rural and suburban areas, should take into account the history, culture and health profile of the surrounding community and weave these unique elements into the fabric of the initiative.

Amparo Abel-Bey, MPH, is a Research Assistant at the Stroke Division, Neurological Institute, at Columbia University Medical Center. Monique Hedmann, MPH, is a Program Manager at the Stroke Division, Neurological Institute, at Columbia University Medical Center. Anna Tan, BSPH, is a graduate student in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.