Extension adult exercise programs keep Oregonians active during COVID-19

Volunteer Ann Dow leads a StrongWomen class on Zoom.  Credit Sam Doak

Physical activity is important to both physical and emotional health, and it can help strengthen the immune system. Walk With Ease and StrongWomen & StrongPeople are two popular Oregon State University Family and Community Health Extension Service programs that draw hundreds of participants each year.

In mid-March, when the decision was made to cancel all OSU Extension in-person classes and events to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Walk With Ease looked for alternative ways to keep people moving.

That led to a focus on Walk With Ease’s self-guided program, which can be started at any time, regardless of location. People can register on the Walk With Ease website. Once they sign up, they will receive the Walk With Ease workbook and then six weekly coaching emails guiding them through the program. Walk With Ease is free to Oregonians.

Walk With Ease is a free multi-component program that also includes health education, stretching and strengthening exercises, and motivational strategies. It was developed by the Arthritis Foundation for arthritis pain relief. The Oregon State University Extension Service Family and Community Health program trains community members to deliver the program in their area.

In 2019, 471 people participated in Walk With Ease, including more than 100 who followed the self-directed program. In-person workshops were held in 12 counties – Clackamas, Deschutes, Harney, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Multnomah, Tillamook, Union, Wallowa, Washington and Yamhill. Coos County was added this year.

Like Walk With Ease, StrongWomen & StrongPeople – a strength training program for middle-aged and older adults – held in-person classes throughout the state until mid-March. OSU Extension Family and Community Health faculty train local volunteer leaders who guide their groups two to three times per week.

That work continues through Zoom meetings and exercise videos that allow participants to follow along at home. Participants have also been able to borrow weights from the program so they can continue exercising at home. A few volunteer leaders are holding Zoom classes for participants in Hood River and The Dalles.

“Our volunteer leaders are using some of the video clips as supplements to their Zoom classes, including the warmup and floor exercises that are harder to ‘model’ on a Zoom screen,” said Lauren Kraemer, statewide StrongWomen coordinator and an assistant professor of practice in the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “Our leaders have been so nimble and so helpful. They continually remind me how important the social aspect of this program is, even if it’s through a camera.”

The videos will allow Kraemer and other volunteer leaders to conduct distance training for new volunteer leaders. StrongWomen supports 21 groups across nine counties in Oregon and southern Washington. Prior to the pandemic, 60 leaders had been trained to lead classes, exposing 455 participants to evidence-based physical activity opportunities. 

The StrongWomen & StrongPeople programs were developed at Tufts University, based upon research on how strength training improves the health of older adults. Research shows strength training improves bone density, arthritis symptoms, flexibility, strength and reduces falls.

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