Walk movement changes lives step by step

March 10, 2019
Greater Huntington Walks kicks off its initiative to register enough community-walked miles to stretch to the moon with a community walk on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, in downtown Huntington.

It began with a single step, made by hundreds on a warm July afternoon last year in downtown Huntington.

Sporting tennis shoes and carrying water bottles, to an outsider, it may have appeared that the community was gathered for a 5K race – a common occurrence in the city in summer time – but the goal of these individuals was far loftier than taking a 3.1-mile stroll.

Instead, their eyes were set on the skies with the goal of accumulating enough steps to reach the moon — 478 million steps or 238,900 miles away — as part of a new movement known as Greater Huntington Walks.

But this initiative isn’t just about reaching a destination, said Andy Fischer, Huntington native and mastermind behind Greater Huntington Walks.

Fischer said he hopes to paint a positive light on the city that has, in recent years, been more widely known for its unhealthy residents and opioid epidemic.

Starting the Greater Huntington Walks movement

Fischer’s inspiration for the Greater Huntington Walks initiative came from an unexpected place.

As a financial advisor, Fischer said his business underwent a federal audit last year by auditors from New York and New Jersey.

With only the news as a source of information about Huntington, Fischer said the auditors asked how the city’s drug and crime problems affect businesses. He also said they were taken aback by the number of panhandlers they saw around town.

Fischer said these questions bothered him because he knew the auditors were only seeing one side of his city.

“I went home and was talking to my wife and said we have to do something to change the perception of Huntington, West Virginia,” he said. ”... No one is knocking our doors down to build new facilities or start a new business in our area, and maybe it’s because they also have the wrong perception of Huntington. And so I sat down at the kitchen table and started writing. This was an idea that I had that we need to somehow start some type of organization to show that we’re vibrant and we’re active.

“I wrote about five pages just on a legal pad — putting together a walking organization and a structure and how, from leadership and management, how we’re going to go about selling this and the whole nine yards to get people enthused to get out to and to go and walk and be healthy.”

That was roughly a year ago and since its launch, more than 2,700 people have joined the movement and amassed roughly 1.7 billion steps or more than 800,000 miles.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response that we’ve received,” Fischer said. “It’s very heartwarming to know that people are really taking this to heart for themselves to make a difference.”

One step at a time

For Valerie Blankenship, joining Greater Huntington Walks has been life-changing.

Since its launch last summer, Blankenship said she has lost 23 pounds, gone down a pant size and also completed her first 5k race.

“It has really changed the way I look at things. I enjoy getting out and walking,” said Blankenship, 51 and a secretary with Autism Services Center in Huntington.

“When I walk, I put my headphones on I listen to music, and I just let the day go,” she said. “It’s very fulfilling for me to get out and do something. It’s calming for me. If I’ve had something hard at work, I know I can get out and walk and all of that stress goes away.”

Blankenship said the walking challenge has also allowed her to follow in her father’s footsteps, quite literally.

“My dad was a big walker,” she said. “When I started this, it was kind of in memory of him and all the steps he did. ... If he could see me now, he would be really proud of me.”

She added that she has also used her story to encourage others.

“I try to encourage everyone that I talk to,” she said. “One thing I told Andy (Fischer) when I first started was whether you’re a turtle or a rabbit, you finish the race. You set out a goal for yourself, and you try to finish that goal. Even if it’s just walking five minutes a day, you go out and you do it.”

When Lynne Taylor, 56 of Huntington, joined Greater Huntington Walks she was already a fairly active person. Taylor said she was already walking and working out a few times a week and had no intention of changing that routine as part of the competition.

However, all that changed a few days after the launch day when Taylor logged onto the Greater Huntington Walk website and noticed the leaderboard displaying the top walkers.

“I’m competitive by nature, and so that was good for me, and so I started pushing myself even harder instead of just getting steps in,” she said. “I really wasn’t competing to win anything, it was just a self-motivating thing for me to see that I could be one of the top walkers.”

Since noticing the leaderboard in mid-July, Taylor said she was walked a minimum of 15,000 steps each day.

“I used to never go under 20,000 (steps) and some days even more than that, but I had to back off because of foot problems,” she said noting that she had been pushing herself so much that she actually lost a toenail.

Before starting this streak, Taylor said she would find every excuse in the book not to exercise.

“Having this streak now is motivating to me,” she said. “It’s a game I play against myself of trying not to break that streak.”

While some may find Taylor’s streak intimidating, she said the best thing about Greater Huntington Walks is that is works for people no matter their experience.

“This is something that everyone can do,” she said. “You don’t need a gym membership or any special equipment. It also makes you a part of a community. Even if I’m walking by myself, I still feel like I’m a part of something bigger, and I like that. I like the fact that I am trying to help Huntington have a better image.

“The more people are walking, the more it’s growing, and then I think it shines a better light on Huntington instead of all the negative stuff we always have.”

The 5 million mile challenge

While participants blew past the first goal of walking to the moon in just 43 days, a task predicted to take at least six months, the movement is far from over and has instead continued to grow in numbers and in steps.

For 2019, Fischer has set raised the bar even higher and is challenging participants to collectively walk 5 million miles.

Fischer said this new goal will force them to increase their numbers by attracting participants from across the state and even across the country.

“We have to increase our circle of influence to get to 5 million miles,” he said. “I would love to see Putnam County and Mason County and Wayne County in this and then spreading even further from that. This is a thing that the whole state of West Virginia can benefit from being a part of.”

In order to gain users as well as encourage new and existing ones, the collective goals for 2019 have been divided in four quarterly challenges — each with different “destinations” for participants.

The first quarterly challenge, “Destination Vacation,” allows walkers to virtually travel to exotic locations across the globe such as Bora Bora, the Great Barrier Reef, Greece, the British Virgin Islands and more.

Each time a person “walks” to a new location, he or she is sent an email, celebrating the milestone along with a brief description and photos of the destination reached.

To add even more of an incentive, registered walkers who complete 200,000 steps per month from January to March will be entered into a drawing for a destination vacation for two to Myrtle Beach, S.C., including airfare and lodging, courtesy of Huntington Tri-State Airport and Travel Doctors Inc.

After a tour of the globe’s warmer destinations, Fischer said the second quarter, beginning in April, will take walkers on a virtual tour of the country’s 30 major league baseball stadiums.

To close out the quarter, Fisher said a day at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati has been planned for participants of Greater Huntington Walks on Sunday, Aug. 11, when the Cincinnati Reds are set to play the Chicago Cubs. He said they will be offering discounted tickets as well as another drawing for a weekend getaway for two to Cincinnati. Parameters for the drawing are the same as the previous quarter.

Fischer said this is all just another way to grow the movement.

“I think that we have to show not just ourselves, but we have to challenge our people that they can do this because I think everyone likes a challenge,” he said. “If we show the outside that in fact Huntington, West Virginia, does have healthy citizens, they have healthy potential employees, it can be an incentive for businesses to come and locate here.”

While the movement began in Huntington, Fischer said there are no restrictions on who can join.

“I got a call last weekend from a lady from Huntington, she now lives in South Carolina and wanted some help in setting up her team with Greater Huntington Walks,” Fischer said. “She was calling herself the ‘Out of Towners’ and was going to solicit people with ties to Huntington whether they were raised here or went to school here to join to help us reach our goal.”

In order to reach the 5 million miles mark by the end of the year, Fischer said they need to increase participation by 10 percent each month.

“We are going to need close to 4,000 or 4,500 (participants) to get us there, and that’s why we’re asking and needing the help from all communities,” he said. “I’m at an age now where all I have is something to leave behind, and this is kind of what I want to do, but I can’t do it by myself. It takes a lot of people and a lot of help.”

Though he’s still got a long way to go, Fischer said he has no doubt people will exceed his expectations once again.

“I have all the confidence we will make it,” he said. “It only runs out of steam when you give up, and I don’t have the desire to give up.”

Join the movement

To join the Greater Huntington Walks movement, go to www.greaterhuntingtonwalks.com and create your own free profile. Walkers can participate individually or on a team.

The program uses Walker Tracker, an online step-counting service, to track and record an individual’s steps throughout the day, which can be done automatically through most smart devices like Fitbits, Apple Watches and iPhones. Analog pedometers may also be used and entered into the database manually online or through a mobile app. The program also counts other physical activities, such as swimming, biking and other athletics, which it converts to steps.