When Kendria McKnight of Elk Grove, Calif., first started walking for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week, she hoped to lower her cholesterol. She did that and much more. McKnight’s treks became part of a free national movement designed to improve the health of black women across the country one step at a time.
McKnight’s sister, Morgan Dixon, and her college friend, Vanessa Garrison, founded the non-profit GirlTrek in 2010, in an effort to encourage black women and girls to embrace regular exercise.
Dixon and Garrison were moved by statistics such as those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that report 80 percent of black women are obese or clinically overweight. Researchers found increases in fitness and reductions in blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate, body fat and body mass index (BMI), among people who participated in outdoor walking groups.
“There is an unprecedented health crisis facing black women,” says Jewel Bush, director of communications for the Washington DC-based GirlTrek. “ We die younger and at higher rates from preventable disease than any other group of women in this country and our goal is to change that.”
Today, GirlTrek boasts over 67,000 members from across the country who have taken the online pledge to improve their health. The non-profit, which receives support from organizations including the Sierra Club, the NAACP, Kaiser Permanente and Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program, hopes to reach one million women by the year 2018.
McKnight,47, know firsthand the health challenges faced by black women. She had been diagnosed with high cholesterol, considered a risk factor for heart disease.*
A 2015 study showed that a cluster of heart risk symptoms known as “metabolic syndrome” raises the risk of heart disease more for black women than it does for white women. Metabolic syndrome refers to having at least three health conditions – including a large waist size, high blood pressure, low levels of good HDL cholesterol, high levels of blood fats known as triglycerides and impaired sugar metabolism – that can all work together to increase the risk of diabetes, heart attacks and stroke.
Encouraged by her sister’s work, McKnight started a walking group four years ago through her church in Elk Grove. This year she underwent a 3-day course to become a trek specialist, learning CPR, how to navigate trails using a compass, and first aid and safety skills.
“Since I’ve started walking, I’ve lowered my cholesterol levels and no longer have to take medication,” says McKnight, who tries to walk at least two and a half miles each day. “I’ve also lost 10 pounds, feel better about myself, and eat healthier.”
In addition to the health benefits of walking, McKnight, a member of the Sacramento chapter of GirlTrek, also praises the sisterhood that has been formed through the walks. “I’ve met many women that I might not have otherwise met.”
Bush says the non-profit’s mission is to promote a healthy lifestyle among black women and girls and to encourage them to heal their bodies and inspire their families to do the same. “We unapologetically center on the health of black women and girls in this country,” says Bush.
GirlTrek also strives to address social barriers to exercise. Since a disproportionate number of black women are also single mothers or caregivers, for instance, GirlTrek encourages women to bring along their kids in the hopes of motivating the next generation to embrace exercise.
Better Health One Step at a Time
Katrina Lashea of Oakland, Calif., first heard about GirlTrek from a friend four years ago, just after she was diagnosed with high blood pressure. “I was also walking solo at the time but looking for a way to exercise where I could enjoy the camaraderie of other women,” Lashea says.
In addition to weekly group walks around Lake Merritt, Lashea, 55, says the Oakland chapter has scheduled walks in Muir Woods, Point Reyes and Lake Chabot.
“Regular walking in nature has not only lowered my blood pressure, and helped me to lose 10 pounds, it also got me through a tough time when my mom was diagnosed with cancer,” Lashea says.
Lashea has also enjoyed the monthly GirlTrek challenges, many of which are tied to black history. For the past three years, members have been challenged each May to walk 52.4 miles over the course of the month in honor of their mothers and the sacrifices they made on behalf of their children. During the month of June, GirlTrek members are encouraged to honor the freedom journey of their ancestors, from slavery to the emancipation, by pledging to break free from one unhealthy habit, such as drinking soda.
Hiking to the Next Level
Not all members of GirlTrek are novice walkers. An avid hiker, Nicole Brown, 30, joined a walking group three years ago shortly after moving to Los Angeles.
“Hiking is my therapy,” says Brown who has scaled Mt. Kilamanjaro, and was selected to participate in the year-long GirlTrek Trailblazer Fellowship program four years ago. The fellowship merges physical training with advocacy and service in order to empower women to be healthy role models for their peers and school-aged children.
Today, Brown is involved in the non-profit’s Adventure squad, focusing on getting women hiking in national parks. “Our motto is no woman is ever left behind,” Brown says, “so if someone is new to hiking and is afraid they won’t be able to keep up with the group, it doesn’t matter. We’ll stay with them and encourage them.”
In addition to the camaraderie, Brown says the testimonials from other GirlTrek members continue to keep her motivated. Each chapter has a Facebook group where members can share their experiences and keep each other accountable.
“So many women put everyone but themselves first,” Brown says. “GirlTrek offers them the opportunity to practice self-care and to reclaim their health.”
*The story initially reported that Morgan Dixon also had high blood pressure and has been updated to correct the error.