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Trek to the Tropics: Willmar area fitness challenge aims to spur people out of hibernation

Anne Polta / Tribune Amber Chevalier, left, and Brittney Odens show off the global itinerary awaiting participants in the Trek to the Tropics health challenge.1 / 3
Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press file photo Max Meyerhoff, front, and Izzy Krompegel, both students at Macalester College, cross country ski down the middle of Summit Avenue in St. Paul in this Feb. 2, 2016, file photo. Organizers of Willmar's Trek to the Tropics community health challenge hope participants will be inspired to try such activity this winter.2 / 3
Minnesota DNR photo A skier enjoys an illuminated trail in 2012 at Lake Bemidji State Park. Organizers of Willmar's Trek to the Tropics community health challenge hope participants will be inspired to try such activity this winter. 3 / 3

WILLMAR — A new community health challenge is using global adventure to keep people active during the bleak days of winter.

The around-the-world trip to exotic destinations is, alas, only virtual. But the collective miles of physical activity are real — and so is the $4,000 travel voucher that will be randomly awarded at the end of the "Trek to the Tropics" challenge.

"We're excited about it," said Brittney Odens, marketing manager at Rice Memorial Hospital and one of the organizers of the free hospital-sponsored event.

Sign-ups are due by midnight Jan. 22. The challenge runs from Jan. 23 to March 18. Three hundred people have registered so far.

The idea for Trek to the Tropics grew out of ReYou, an initiative launched in 2013 to promote wellness beyond the hospital walls and reduce risk factors for chronic diseases.

ReYou health coach Amber Chevalier said she often sees people's activity level drop during winter, resulting in blood pressure, cholesterol and other biometric markers veering in the wrong direction.

"How can we get people moving during the hardest time to move?" she said. "That's the No. 1 thing I hear from people. The more we can get them exploring their options, the better."

Participants in Trek to the Tropics must log a minimum number of activity miles each week of the eight-week challenge to qualify for the next leg of the journey.

A calculator at the official website, trektothetropics.com, helps participants figure out the mileage equivalents of the activities they engage in each week. (Yes, vacuuming, shoveling snow and cleaning the barn all count.)

The key is intentional activity, Odens said. "We want people to be mindful."

Organizers hope participants will be inspired to try a range of activities. It could be cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, yoga or mall walking, Odens said. "We want people to look for new ways to be active. You don't have to be a runner. You don't have to be a biker."

An accompanying blog at the website will share information on each week's destination. First stop is Guatemala City, a distance of 2,126 miles. The around-the-world tour continues to Peru, Cape Verde, Kenya, a chilly detour north to Greenland, and then to Myanmar and Fiji before ending back in Willmar.

If 300 people participate and everyone meets the goal each week, they will collectively log 38,402 miles by the end of the challenge.

What if someone falls short halfway through the trek? They'll have to pack their bags and go home disqualified, although Odens and Chevalier hope this doesn't happen.

The travel voucher drawing will take place at a community health expo April 5 at the Willmar Conference Center.

There's growing evidence that sedentary habits are detrimental to long-term health, not only for weight but for managing blood pressure, cholesterol and overall well-being, Chevalier said. But staying active is often difficult, especially when winter drives people indoors for three or four months every year, she said.

Trek to the Tropics is meant to spur people out of hibernation, she said. "We wanted to try something new. Hopefully people will have a habit built by spring."

A questionnaire administered at registration time will help participants track changes in blood pressure, mood and more.

This is the first time Willmar has had a community-wide health challenge. Fergus Falls offers a similar event that started with about 300 participants and grew to 1,500 within four years.

"We're hoping it builds a camaraderie within the community," Odens said. "If we have a successful first year, we'd like to do this every year. We're reaching high."

Register online at www.trektothetropics.com.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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