Jeff Caruso is going to need some good walking shoes.
“My long-term goal is to wear a path into the concrete around the edge of this building,” he said, while taking a break from his morning walk in the warm interior of the Ravalli County Fairgrounds’ First Interstate Building.
Even if he can’t meet that goal, Caruso and his walking partner, Dave Meier, will be just as happy to lose a few pounds, get their hearts tuned up and improve their blood sugar levels.
On Friday morning, the two men and Caruso’s service dog, Kallie, were giving the concrete floor a workout as they took advantage of a new program that opens up the spaces offered by the expansive building to walkers for a minimal fee.
The Ravalli County Commission gave the fairgrounds permission to open the building on a trial basis to see if community members would be interested in using it to stave off the winter blues by adding some exercise to their routine.
The three-month trial period runs through Feb. 15. The building is heated and open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday at a cost for $25 for the three months. If there’s enough interest, the commission will consider offering it for year-round use for a $50 fee.
So far, the program has been well received by those who have taken advantage of it, said fairgrounds manager Melissa Saville.
“We are getting great comments from people who said that they wouldn’t be able get out and walk without it,” Saville said. “I think we’ve had about a dozen people who have been here consistently. It’s not the hordes of people we had hoped for, but this really hasn’t been a horrible winter, either.”
The winter has been bad enough that it would have kept Meier from getting out and exercising.
“My driveway is about a quarter of a mile long,” Meier said. “It gets really icy. It would be hard for me to get out and walk on it. This here is kind of like going for a walk in a mall.”
“We’ve been coming here since before Christmas,” Caruso said. “Every day that they let us walk, we’re here. It’s nice and warm and you don’t have to worry about traffic.”
Both men are diabetic. They’ve already seen some good results that come with consistent exercise.
“We’ve seen our blood sugar improve dramatically since we started walking a half hour to 45 minutes a day,” Caruso said. “I want to get up to the point where I can walk an hour.”
The trial-run period coincides with Ravalli County’s WINter Wellness, a health incentive program designed and implemented by Katelyn Andersen, MSU Extension Agent for Ravalli County. This free program through the Extension Office encourages individuals to engage in physical activity. Every adult (18 and over) can enter to win prizes by participating in physical activity in Ravalli County.
“Through conversation with individuals in the community, it became obvious that people needed a location to engage in physical activity during inclement weather,” Anderson said. “Icy sidewalks or heavy rain can prohibit individuals to get outside for physical activity. The opportunity to walk indoors is a great option for individuals with limited income.”
Linda Looser, owner of Hamilton’s New Horizons Physical Therapy, said not exercising through the winter months can be a setback for the elderly.
“People in their 70s and 80s can work really hard during the summer only to lose a lot of what they gained by not staying active through the winter,” Looser said. “That means they have to start all over in the spring time.”
From a woman’s health perspective, Looser said the best exercise to maintain pelvic floor health is walking.
“Three months of not walking can bring back all those symptoms of incontinence and pelvic pain,” she said.
Providing people with a safe place to get out and walk can go beyond the direct physical health benefits.
“The other aspect that we shouldn’t forget is the opportunity for people to socialize,” Looser said. “During the winter months, people tend not to get out and socialize nearly as much. That’s something that needs to be considered. The ability to get out and socialize is very important as we age.
“Many of my patients have stated repeatedly that they wished we had a mall here so we could have a mall walker program,” she said. “This is our opportunity to have something just like that. It provides a place where people can work on their balance. They can use their walkers and canes in a safe environment.”
Commissioner Chris Hoffman said the idea of opening up the First Interstate Building was introduced by the county’s MSU Extension team and its concern that people wanting to participate in its winter wellness program might not be able to get outdoors and exercise once snow and ice arrived.
“The commission agreed to see if there was an interest of using the resources we have at the fairgrounds,” Hoffman said. “The idea was to make it available and affordable. It might not have a mall, but we do have a space that would work for this.
“Right now, we are in a trial period to measure the interest of the community for using this facility for that type of activity,” he said. “If we had started it last winter, I think we would have had people rushing down there. This winter has been a lot milder … If we can help people continue exercising, that’s something we sure want to do.”
People interested in walking at the fairground do need to sign a waiver. They should bring a clean pair of shoes and any children need to be supervised. For a complete list of policies and regulations, contact the Fairgrounds Office at 406-363-3411.