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Kansas State University
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Manhattan, KS 66506
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Farmhouse in field

 

K-State researchers and their partners making it easier for rural Kansans of all ages to stay healthy despite limited access to trails, gyms

By Erinn Barcomb-Peterson

 

With fresh air and wide-open spaces, rural communities may seem like hotbeds for healthy living.

Limited access to walking trails, bicycle-friendly streets and gyms tell another story.

"I take for granted having a bowling alley or a skate park nearby," said Nikki Ramsey, Kansas State University master's student in family studies and human services from Statesville, N.C.

Although Ramsey's hometown is small, she said her region is like many parts of the United States, in which small towns abut other towns and connect to a large city like Charlotte.

"In these Kansas communities, you have to have a car to be anywhere other than among grass and trees," she said.

It's a challenge among so-called frontier states, said Elaine Johannes, assistant professor of family studies and human services at K-State. What looks like open space often is privately owned, used for agriculture and otherwise not suitable for recreation. Local parks often are not big enough for walking trails or skating facilities, while local streets may not be suitable for cyclists or pedestrians.

"It's especially hard for kids living in frontier states to be active because they may be on a bus for 45 minutes to an hour each way to school," Johannes said.

She and Ramsey are part of a state team supporting the Get it-Do it program to provide communities with $3,000 grants to improve community health and fitness. Get it-Do it is a collaborative effort with Kansas PRIDE, a community organization to improve quality of life in rural communities, and with K-State Research and Extension's Partnerships for Healthier Kansans. The program's funding has come from the K-State Center for Engagement and Community Development and K-State Research and Extension.

"A good portion of people write small towns off," Johannes said. "When you talk to the youth, they still want their community to be there. These towns get a kind of energy boost from these small grants."

The communities working on Get it-Do it projects this year are Glasco, Grinnell, Melvern, Rossville, Spearville and Stafford, whose project is creating a bird-and-bike trail where people can get exercise while enjoying the waterfowl that come through the Cheyenne Bottoms. New signage along the trail will educate visitors about physical health.

Grinnell is working toward better signage on its trails and making them more accessible to people who use wheelchairs or have other disabilities. Glasco is bringing yoga, tai chi and Zumba fitness classes to its Walk Kansas activities. Melvern created hiking and biking trails, and is encouraging other outdoor activities like fishing.

Rossville is starting a sand volleyball program, which the community envisions allowing players to compete with other teams in towns like Grinnell. Spearville is starting a summer youth-led recreation program through which teens will teach other teens about physical health.

Johannes and Ramsey said that a core part of these projects is having youths and adults working together.

"A lot of the little towns don't have a lot of young people," Ramsey said. "This is a way of making sure they get out and have fun."

A lot of the work on the projects takes place over the summer, Johannes said, when Ramsey and other K-State students will visit the communities to observe their progress. When the projects are complete, the data they gather will go to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's Healthy Kansas Initiative.

The Get it-Do it program also gives communities experience in applying for grants with the hope that they can pursue more funding as their projects develop, Johannes said.

"You take a town with a personality and give it appropriate support, and you get these original -- or unique -- programs," she said. "Unlike artificial programs, they'll survive well after the grant money is gone. I hope the youth will say, 'This is what I'm attached to; this is my town.'"