The newsletter of the Active Transportation Alliance

modeshift volume 4, issue 3

 

Chicago's burgeoning walking communities hit the streets

By Meaghan Miller

With the demands and costs of urban living, walking just makes sense for a lot of people in the Chicago region. The accessibility, health benefits and the minimal financial investment offer people an affordable, practical and enjoyable way to exercise and get around.

While some people prefer a solo stroll, many people feel that walking is most enjoyable in the company of others. In some cases, these social walkers form clubs. Many say clubs keep them motivated and enthusiastic year-round.

So how do these groups work and what do participants get out of them? Here’s a brief overview of a few walking groups in the region.

Fiscal accessibility breeds physical attainability

Samantha Kuchen (photo credit Meaghan Miller)

After her mother died of breast cancer, Samantha Kuchen, 29, transformed a sit-and-talk-about-weight-loss group into the active Healthy Chicago walking group in 2008. Kuchen was inspired to lose weight, and walking, she said, was “simply the easiest form of exercise. No equipment needed, no resources needed, and it can be varied for all levels.”

Healthy Chicago started with three to four regulars following one route on the Northeast Side. The group, she said, began to grow as they incorporated members' suggestions like switching the group's focus to walking instead of weight loss, finding walking routes in different neighborhoods and creating a regular schedule.

The group now meets Thursday evenings in North Side neighborhoods for walks of 3.5-5.5 miles, which last from one to two hours. Weekends often see the group exploring areas outside the city like the Skokie Lagoons.

Bridging the gap with technology and a bean

Sometimes there is a will, but the way can be clouded, especially when it comes to finding like-minded individuals. In the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago's south side, Timika Hoffman-Zoller—safety advocate and vice president of the Elm Park Advisory Council—wanted to start exercising, and decided to fire up a walking group to accomplish that.

Flyers brought only one woman to the first meeting in early June, 2011. In September, Hoffman-Zoller tried recruiting people on Meetup.com—and within a week 10 people had joined.

Currently, the group goes on weekly Sunday walks and adds weekday-morning walks by member request. “It's really nice how quickly people responded,” Hoffman-Zoller says.

Timika Hoffman-Zoller (right) pictured with other Hyde Park walking group participants. Photo credit: Timika Hoffman-Zoller.

John Trindle, 43, plans weekly walks for the Forest Park Walking Club, and keeps attendance up by making walks as fun as possible. Past summertime walks have featured stops for Italian ice and custard, and have drawn 20 attendees.

The club also walks to concerts and other cultural events—even during the snowy months. Walking down Michigan Avenue or around the Bean to see carolers at Millennium Park “gets people to realize it's not impossible to walk outside in the winter,” says Trindle.

Walking refuge for winter warriors

For those not yet ready to join Trindle on his quest to walk outside “as long as it's above single digits,” the exercise group, WalkForce, based inside the Garfield Park Conservatory, offers an alluring alternative.

The group is organized by Rishona Taylor, who serves as the manager for the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance’s New Communities Program. Taylor says the program is great for people who are hesitant to exercise outside when the temperature drops below freezing. “It's a practical way to continue exercising without having to pay for a membership somewhere,” she said.

The group meets at 5 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday year-round, and the organic structure of the program allows for each new participant to work toward basic goals at his or her own pace. There are currently about 40 active members.

After the conservatory's roof was damaged in June's hailstorm, WalkForce members walked at nearby Marshall High School. Temporary roofing is currently being installed and will allow more spaces to re-open for walkers and visitors in time for the winter months.

An ageless pursuit

For seniors in Chicago who are seeking gentle exercise options, the six regional senior centers around Chicago (and the numerous satellite centers) offer health and wellness programming for those over 60.

Walking programs are offered at many of the centers. While programs vary, at the Southeast (Atlas) Center, a 10-member group of 70-somethings walks Tuesday and Thursday mornings year-round and is looking to increase membership.

While walking groups meet for a variety of reasons, they all share a keen interest in sociability and keeping their feet moving.

For Sam Kuchen—and many others in Chicago's growing walking community—a walking group offers key therapeutic benefits in addition to exercise and conversation. “Every time I come home from a walk with the group, I am in a good mood,” she said.

 

Join a walking group
⇒ To connect with the Hyde Park Walking Group, the Forest Park Walking Group or the Healthy Chicago: Walkers, Hikers & Fitness Foodies, visit MeetUp.com and search for name of the group.
⇒ Chicago offers six regional senior centers and 13 satellites centers. Learn about them.
⇒ Readers interested in WalkForce can contact Rishona Taylor (rmtaylor@garfieldpark.org, 773-638-1766) or stop by the conservatory (300 N. Central Park Ave, Chicago, IL 60620) any Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday between 5-6 p.m. to register with enough time to begin walking that day.

 

Meaghan Miller is a volunteer Modeshift contributor. Miller has lived in Chicago off and on since 1997 and enjoys exploring on a daily basis.

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