By: Kris Anne Bonifacio, Special Programs Coordinator, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation
While hiking on the Equestrian Trail at Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve, Drae Wright took in the surrounding longleaf pine forest and the blue sky above and an idea came to her: “I should do more of this. I really need the exercise and the outdoors. Why not pick a bigger goal and make it an adventure? How about all the trails in all the state parks?”
She accepted the challenge she posed to herself just as quickly as the idea came to her.
Drae is 68 years old and she began her state parks Passport adventure in March. But really, her journey to her new lofty goal began last December, when she was reading the book The End of Alzheimer’s by Dr. Dale Bredesen. The doctor, who earned his medical degree at Duke University, has earned praise for what he calls “the first program to prevent and reverse cognitive decline” — a series of lifestyle changes to protect brains from “downsizing.”
Reading the book was a wake-up call for Drae who is in the age group, 65 to 85 years old, of those most at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Even more alarming for Drae, she found that she had about “80 percent of the known precursors and about 80 percent of the early symptoms of late onset Alzheimer’s.” She became determined to fight these symptoms to prevent a diagnosis.
She started by walking 15 minutes a day. She felt that changing her sedentary lifestyle was the first step in getting healthy. As she increased the duration of her walks, she found herself wanting to go back to a hobby from decades ago: hiking.
“[In] April 1998, at age 48, my first hiking goal was to hike at least some of the Appalachian Trail that year,” she said. “The AT had been my dream since 15, but I was sick a lot, my physical stamina was poor and I never learned to hike or backpack.”
She persevered, though, hiking at state parks within a short drive from her home, and using the section of the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail at Falls Lake State Recreation Area as her practice run for short day hikes. She moved on to a first backpacking overnight trial at Raven Rock State Park. In August 1998, she completed a three-day hike on the Appalachian Trail.
But eventually, the hiking stopped.
Two decades later, she applied the same determination she had for her AT goal, and in three months, she is hiking 5 to 7 miles a day and working through her state parks Passport book. She even started wearing a purple cap in her hikes, from the organization Alzheimer’s North Carolina, to help spread awareness about the effects lifestyle changes like exercise can have on the disease.
“The purple cap is a conversation starter,” she said. “Some people get tears in their eyes and ask to hear more. They tell me who in their family has had the disease or who is struggling with symptoms and has no hope. My thought was to let people know that I believe Alzheimer’s is reversible and preventable.”
Many 100-Mile Challenge participants cite losing weight and developing a healthier lifestyle as their motivation for signing up. About 5 percent of our participants are over the age of 65, and according to the AARP, that is the time for increased risks for heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, several types of cancers and, as Drae noted, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The good news, Drae says, is that staying active — regardless of your age — could help prevent many of these health issues. And for those already diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or depression, exercise is a powerful tool in managing your symptoms.
“My outlook and cognitive training scores have improved greatly,” Drae said, adding that since she began her regular walks, she has lost weight, slept better and had more energy than most of her life. “I expect to fully recover from all symptoms and never go through the losses of dementia.”
One of the biggest hurdles in a healthy lifestyle is maintaining it. As Drae experienced earlier in her life, a sedentary lifestyle can creep up on anyone, even if you are fit enough to hike the Appalachian Trail.
So, joining programs like the 100-Mile Challenge can be a good motivator. Year after year, participants set a goal of at least 100 miles of outdoor activity, and they are rewarded with digital badges and prizes. Last year, more than 5,000 participants logged nearly 300,000 miles of hiking, biking, running, paddling, walking, horseback riding and geocaching. The miles do not have to be completed in state parks. Walking around your neighborhood, biking on the greenways or hiking on the AT count toward your challenge miles.
For Drae, she is on her 13thstate park in the Passport and has completed 30 miles of state parks trails. Within the 41 state parks, there are 618 miles of trail. When Drae reaches her goal, she will likely far exceed that, given that she repeats a few trails just to get some more exercise.
But your own health goals don’t have to be as big as Drae’s. If you haven’t signed up for 100-Mile Challenge account, do so now and set the goal of 100 miles by the end of the year. When you meet it, you can shoot for the next one at 250 miles. Or you can make that your goal for the following year.
That is one of the best parts about our 100-Mile Challenge: you can customize it so that it works for you. You can even add the Passport goal as part of your challenge by hiking one trail at each park and collecting the stamps along the way.
So sign up today, and as we say in state parks, take a hike! Who knows, you might even run into Drae in her purple cap.
Kris Anne Bonifacio manages the North Carolina State Parks 100-Mile Challenge and Passport programs. She has a journalism degree from Northwestern University. In 2016, she moved to North Carolina from New York City, trading in tall buildings for tall mountains, smoggy air for salty sea air and cramped subway trains for beautiful state parks.
Do you have your own healthy lifestyle goals as part of the 100-Mile Challenge? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org you may be featured in our next blog!