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County tries to get people moving, a step at a time

The goal was ambitious.

More than two years ago, Hernando County officials set out to help obese and overweight residents lose a total of 1-million pounds by the end of 2004.

The pounds have not been tallied, but local health advocates agree: We're still too fat, and not active enough.

Now, as the new year begins, the Hernando County Health Department has a more modest plan. They're just asking people to take a few more steps, any way they can.

"Park farther from the store," the Step Up, Hernando! pamphlet advises. "Get up to change the channel."

The goal of Step Up, Hernando! is to encourage each county resident to walk 10,000 steps every day. The average person's stride length, according to the pamphlet, is about 2{ feet, making 10,000 steps close to 5 miles.

"Ultimately, we want to increase physical activity, which can incur weight loss and improve quality of life," Heart Healthy Hernando coordinator Karen Gidden said.

Gidden said that Hernando health officials designed the program to get a jump start on a new statewide walking initiative, "Step Up, Florida! On Our Way to Healthy Living," which begins in February. The initiative, organized by the Florida Department of Health, involves a flag relay that will wind through each of the state's 67 counties.

Why is Hernando getting an early start?

"It's the first of the year, so everybody is thinking about getting active," Gidden said.

Gidden added that many Hernando residents have their work cut out for them when it comes to increasing physical activity.

For example, only 31 percent of adults in the county are "moderately active," according to 2002 data. Gidden said moderately active means exercising at least 30 minutes three to four times a week.

Statewide, about 26 percent of Florida adults were physically inactive that same year, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Data gathered in 2002 found that only 36 percent of adults in Hernando County were at a healthy weight, with a body mass index _ a measure of body fat based on height and weight _ of less than 25, Gidden said. Statewide, about 57 percent of adults were overweight or obese, according to data from the 2002 behavioral risk factor surveillance system.

Rather than setting strict weight-loss goals, the county simply hopes to encourage people to walk every day. To help people keep track of their activity, any resident with a Hernando County library card may check out a pedometer, which measures distance traveled, for eight weeks.

Health Department staffers also have created an online program to record physical activity.

"Pounds lost may be monitored if desired," Gidden said.

It's not officially part of Step Up, Hernando!, but the Hernando County Planning Department is trying to help get residents walking by making Hernando a safer place for pedestrians.

Steve Diez, the county's bicycle pedestrian coordinator, said a $300,000 stretch of sidewalk was just added in the Hernando Beach area.

Diez said that sidewalks are expensive, but it's becoming clear that people need safe places to exercise.

"The Step Up, Hernando! program is becoming one of our greatest allies because of the obesity epidemic," he said. "We can build facilities all day long, but unless people know they're there, they won't use them."

Step Up, Hernando! will have a kickoff walk at 8 a.m. Saturday. It will begin at Tom Varn Park in Brooksville.

Mary Spicuzza can be reached at mspicuzzasptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

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