A positive, can-do attitude can figuratively move mountains. If your idea of a mountain is increasing physical activity, getting fit and maintaining a healthier lifestyle, there is a movement that’s gaining momentum at Gratiot-Isabella Regional Education Service District.

While “shaping the future through education” is the district’s tagline, staff members are helping each other shape the future of their health and wellness with a group step challenge. The annual event is a fun social activity with a touch of quirkiness, and is gaining an enthusiastic following one step at a time.

An Exercise in Unity

With its 11 member educational entities spread across two counties, Gratiot-Isabella is a geographically splintered group. Staff members may go weeks before seeing another colleague.

“I always wanted to do something to bring everyone together and motivate them around wellness,” says Cheryl Evers, an adaptive physical education teacher.

Before coming to Gratiot-Isabella, Evers taught in Illinois, where she was chairman of her school district’s health and wellness committee. As such, she was experienced in organizing health-related events and rallying staff members to participate in them.

“A formal wellness committee like what I did in Illinois doesn’t exist at GIRESD,” Evers says. “So, I self-appointed myself.”

Three years ago, Evers decided to organize a step challenge and make it accessible to all RESD staff members.

Logistics

The walking challenge is called Fitness Around the World, and the idea is that participants’ daily steps are compiled into a collective effort, with a shared goal of walking 22,000 miles — the Earth’s circumference. The challenge runs from Sept. 1 through June 1 and is open to teachers and students.

As staff members complete activities, they track them on a log sheet, with each sheet representing 50 miles. Completed sheet are sent to Evers, who adds participants’ miles to the total.

To encourage participation, Evers designed the challenge to be flexible, devising a method to convert just about any physical activity — yoga, kickboxing, gardening — into miles. For every 15 minutes of activity, or 2,000 steps for those using step trackers such as Fitbits, participants earn credit for one mile.

“People have asked if snow shoveling counts as an exercise to earn miles. I say yes,” Evers adds.

Evers also puts together a monthly wellness newsletter that features healthy recipes and wellness-related stories.

Best Foot Forward

The step challenge is connecting staff members in an entirely new way, says Evers, who has seen the event spark friendly competitions between employees and between classrooms.

“There is competition, but the challenge brings us all together for one goal,” she says. “It’s really fun.”

Among the competitions was one started by two employees in the business office. They created a special mug and that is awarded to the person who completes the most steps each week.

Evers has attempted to grow participation and motivate walkers’ efforts by offering quirky incentives including a “Top Banana” award. A cheerful little trophy featuring the yellow fruit gets embellished with the name of the person who completes the most miles each month. Evers sends the award through interoffice mail for the recipient to display proudly at work.

She also established “tote tokens,” stainless steel ball-and-bead keychains given to every participant. For every 50 miles completed, they earn a charm in the shape of a foot.

Miles and Smiles

The overall response to the program is best reflected in the growing participation rate. For the 2018-2019 school year, 18 staff members and six students collectively walked 8,450 miles. For the 2019-2020 year, there are 25 staff and four students participating, and as of the end of February they had covered 7,750 miles. With the challenge running until June 1, and Evers anticipates last academic year’s totals will be exceeded.

Rebecca Christie is a pre-student teacher whose participation in the challenge highlights how it is uniting the Gratiot-Isabella community and motivating people to improve their health.

“I was asked if I wanted to join the challenge, and it made me feel like I was really part of the classroom and not just a visitor,” Christie says. “It also motivated me to walk to places I would usually drive. It’s another great way to help the environment while collecting cute little foot charms.”

Step Up and Join

Anyone can join Fitness Around the World at any point during the nine-month challenge. Evers encourages interested parties to contact her at any point between now and June 1.

“It’s never too late,” she says. “We have new people jump in every month.”

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