BY COSHANDRA DILLARD
CANTON — A small East Texas town, Canton attracts what locals and city slickers crave — wide open spaces, outdoor recreation and First Monday.
First Monday Trade Days has been a staple for the bargain shopper and is the city's distinction. It's the backdrop of a phenomenon that occurs each month when people flock to the grounds. City officials estimate that more than 5.4 billion steps are walked in and around Canton during the event, underscoring the need to promote the benefits of walking.
In November, the city council passed a proclamation designating Canton as the “Walking Capital of Texas.” It was a plan drawn up by Bill Moore, an 80-year-old walking enthusiast who has ignited the endorsement of wellness in the area.
Canton Mayor Cary Hilliard calls the designation a “win-win” for his community.
“If you come down here this month, you'll see 100,000 people on any given day, or more, walking everywhere,” she said. “You have to walk First Monday. With all the walking going around and activities and things, we thought it was a good fit. … We hope that this is something that catches people's attention and emphasizes health and wellness and it will expand beyond Canton.”
With the blessing of local state legislators, including Sen. Bob Deuell, they hope to get an official state resolution when the Texas Legislature convenes in January.
“I think it's a great idea,” Deuell said. “If they bring that to us in the legislative session, we'll be happy to support it.”
Deuell, a practicing physician, said he realizes that citywide initiatives such as the walking promotion in Canton can have a ripple effect on quality of life and in health care spending.
“Prevention is the best cure,” he said. “Exercise is a part of that. If every person in the country, in the state, walked 30 minutes a day, you'd significantly cut health care costs. Unfortunately, people don't do that and with the obesity epidemic — which is partially not exercising, partially diet — we're seeing our health care costs in the state increase.”
Even before the proclamation, Hilliard established a monthly mayor's walk, where people of all ages go to the city's Cherry Creek Park.
The park has a half-mile trail and a children's playground that was built by residents.
“It's turning into be a very popular place for a lot of activities,” Hilliard said. “It's not a runner's facility — it's walking. And it's a pretty, pleasant, quiet place. People enjoy the tranquility.”
Mayors across the country have begun similar walks to get community members motivated to include physical activity into their routines. It's part of the national dialogue about obesity, inactivity, accountability and grassroots initiatives.
“Everybody can do something easy for their health,” Hilliard said. “Here's an easy way to do it. We don't want you to walk just one day a month. We want you to walk every day.”
Hilliard said when elected officials lead with health initiatives it has a larger effect. But he's most impressed with what Moore has been able to do.
“Bob Moore is a walking example of how this exercise can change your life,” he said. “We all admire him for doing that and trying to really duplicate what he's doing.”
Hilliard said people are motivated to go the park because of the added accountability and socialization.
“It makes it much easier to do if you have people walking with you,” he said. “For me personally, it's made it easier for me to get up and go. Otherwise, I might stay and watch the news or get on the computer and not do it. It motivates me to get out and do it and it works that way with a lot of people.”
Van Zandt County's health factors are comparable to neighboring counties: 30 percent of residents are obese, 23 percent smoke, about 9 percent have been diagnosed with diabetes and there is a low ratio of primary-care physicians-to-population.
The county is one of three that is a focus of a Community Transformation Grant, a grant implemented by the Northeast Texas Public Health District through Texas Department of State Health Services funding.
The program is intended to support community level initiatives that reduce chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. Health officials hope that the program will continue for five years.
Some strategies outlined for the program include preventing and reducing obesity, improve nutrition, and employ community health workers to provide education about blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.
GOOD HEALTH, GOOD ECONOMICS
Mercy Rushing, for the economic development, marketing and Main Street in Canton, said with rising health care costs to the state, promoting healthy habits will yield some economic benefits. The walking endorsement, along with a smoking ordinance is one way, she said, the city has addressed health care problems.
“We feel like Canton is trying to do its part,” Mrs. Rushing said. “The federal government has been preaching that we need to lower our health insurance (costs). We are trying to be a piece of that puzzle by showing other communities this is what you can do.”
The town has a trade market of 45,000 and is a certified retirement.
“When Bob (Moore) came up with the walking capital I thought it was a great idea and I saw that as a boom for us because we are a certified retirement community … Economically, I think it's helped Canton because we're getting more people who are wanting to build senior housing here,” she said.
Although the population is only 3,581, the city has a parks and recreation department that oversees four parks, which includes areas for soccer, tennis, golf and walking trails.
Mrs. Rushing said these features enhance the city's walking appeal and their Main Street program is working to extend sidewalks on Texas highways 64 and 19.
The local push for healthier habits has been encouraging to Mrs. Rushing.
“I know that I'm getting older so I know I need to be healthier and part of that is exercise because I'm behind a desk every day here,” she said.
Public health officials have noted that a healthy community is more industrious, driving health care costs down and production up. While this benefit is a bonus for Hilliard, he's just glad people are taking advantage of opportunities to have a better quality of life.
“Primarily it's about wellness for our population because a little bit of exercise can change everybody's life for the better,” he said. “It doesn't matter how old you are. It doesn't matter if you have trouble getting around. If you keep moving, your body works better.”