Women Out   Walking

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Close up of a woman running on a road.

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Six years ago, Evonda Thomas-Smith set out to get Evanston women moving more. As the director of health for the City of Evanston, she and a small committee of peers created a vision for Women Out Walking, a program that encourage healthy lifestyles for women through walking.

They had a modest goal and modest means: Thomas-Smith and the team created hand-drawn flyer in the shape of a tennis shoe to recruit 50 women.

Out of that simple flyer, at the first meeting, 500 people showed up.

“It was an unbelievable problem to have,” Thomas-Smith said. “We ran out of refreshments, we ran out of T-shirts … We saw this was an interest and a non-judgmental way to say, ‘Hey, are you moving or not?’”

Now, routinely 1,000 women are in the 12-week program, she said. They range from 18 to 98 years old.

“We give them a pedometer, show them how to link to the tracking system and give them an incentive program,” she said.

Prizes range from tea to mugs, from athletic shoes to athletic apparel.

The format: The women register in teams, select a team leader and schedule times to walk. People may walk as individuals, too. They log their steps into an online tracking system hosted on the American Heart Association’s website.

WOW’s programming also includes opportunities for free screenings for cholesterol, depression, body mass index, even gait analysis to better inform participants about what kind of athletic shoes to purchase.

Four Saturday workshops during the 12 weeks provide 20-minute snippets of workout classes from the community including yoga, aerobics, belly dancing, Zumba and more.

When WOW started up, the State of Illinois Health Department provided a $3,000 grant to help cover initial fees.

Initially, the program was free to Evanston residents. However, once she saw an interest from other areas, Thomas-Smith said they opened up the program to neighboring communities. Participants now pay a $5 fee.

“WOW is hitting on people’s inherent desire to move, but they may need the support,” she said.

Once the members register, their geographic information is shared with the Evanston alderman, as the aldermen and the mayor participate occasionally.

It becomes a bit of a friendly competition for aldermen to recruit their constituents to participate, Thomas-Smith said.

The women come from primarily from Evanston as well as north-side Chicago, the North Shore, Skokie and East Rogers Park.

You still have time to get involved. The program’s final monthly meet-up is June 7 at Deering Park, 2611 Sheridan Road. The WOW closing event will be June 14 at the Ecology Center, 2024 N. McCormick Blvd.

It’s getting recognition, too. In 2012, the U.S. Conference of Mayors presented Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl with the City Livability Award for Evanston’s Women Out Walking (WOW) program, according to the City of Evanston’s 2012 Annual Report.

“It took on a life of its own,” Thomas-Smith said. “What was ‘here’s a pedometer, here’s a journal to track your steps,’ has now turned into a community-wide movement.”