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Cold weekend weather didn't stop GirlTrekkers from walking to promote fitness and tackle obesity

Robert Joiner | St. Louis Beacon
Five of the GirlTrekkers on a bitterly cold morning.

When Faye Paige Edwards woke up to numbing weather and a wind chill well below zero last Saturday morning, she expected some women to cancel plans to join her on their usual walk on the North Riverfront Trail near Hall Street and Riverview Boulevard.

But five women, including Edwards, did show up and began walking at 8 a.m. sharp, their boots making crunching sounds on the snow and ice on a trail where nothing else seemed to move except the glittering water in the Mississippi River.

In reference to the cold, Edwards said, “There is no such thing as bad weather. If you have enough layers on, you can do it. So we are trying to change the face of fitness in the black community.”

The women are part of a relatively new national movement called GirlTrek, which seeks to get often sedentary black women out the house and on their feet for workouts, says Edwards, a retired sales and marketing consultant and the volunteer rep for the local GirlTrek organization.

“We had a lot of cancelations this morning, but some of us will be here the first Saturday of every month, rain or shine.”

The monthly river trail walk is in addition to the organization’s efforts to encourage women to exercise at least 30 minutes daily.

“For many people the only way you are going to get fit is to lace up your sneakers and walk because a gym is not an option,” she says due to cost or location. “People ski and skate in cold weather. So there is nothing unsafe about being out here.”

The goal, she says, is to promote good health and address obesity among black women. Obesity is a condition under which body weight is sharply higher than the recommended body mass index. African-American women have the nation’s highest obesity rate, according to the federal Office of Minority Health.

During a year-long initiative, called Fit City, the St. Louis Beacon has reported on health conditions on the north side, an area where rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are disproportionately high. The message has been that obesity is a preventable condition, and that heading it off can save billions spent on chronic diseases triggered in part by people being overweight and inactive.

Edwards and others on the walking trail Saturday called attention to all those conditions as they talked about being proactive about their own health. One participant was Ida Harris, who works for the American Heart Association and chairs the Health and Wellness Ministry at New Sunny Mount Baptist Church on the north side.

“I am out here with GirlTrek because walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week combats heart disease, diabetes and stroke. We are committed to be out here the first Saturday of every month, even on cold days, even if it’s below zero.”

The women envision GirlTrek enjoying lots of growth once more people see the benefit of walking.

GirlTrek is a nonprofit group that began two years ago in Washington, DC. An estimated 150,000 girls and women nationwide take part in its activities. The unit in St. Louis started last summer, and about 50 people participate in local activities, Edwards says. She added that about 15 to 20 women posted comments on the group’s Facebook page, saying they now regretted being no-shows after learning that five of their colleagues defied the cold and walked three miles on Saturday morning, Edwards said.

What seems to discourage African Americans from exercising in cold weather and in general, she says, isn’t the temperature or neighborhood safety but habit. “We are all victims of our culture and our socialization. You do what you see your friends do. That’s one reason we are trying to create a fun, friendly community of people who are walking.”

Another factor among women, she feels, is that many of them “spend time focusing on everyone else’s care but not their own. Their own care has never been a priority. We were too busy or tired.”

GirlTrek intends to make exercise by women a priority, she says.

“If we don’t have healthy black women to model healthy black behavior, we will never have healthy black girls. Most of our black girls are on track to have diabetes and most of that is due to inactivity. So there is more at stake than our personal fitness.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.