Winding through 165 miles of picturesque Pennsylvania terrain, the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream come true. But two years ago, it was underused.
Elissa Garofalo, the Corridor’s executive director, knew that sometimes people need a nudge to get out and enjoy even nearby attractions. She contacted St. Luke’s University Health Network to see whether there was a way to encourage St. Luke’s employees to use the trail.
That very same week, St. Luke’s Ken Szydlow, vice president of marketing, and Bonnie Coyle, M.D., director of community health, had been trying to figure out how to get local residents off the couch and exercising more. Community health needs assessments showed that rates of childhood obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes were quite high in the nine-county area the hospital serves surrounding Bethlehem, Allentown and Easton.
When Garofalo reached out, “all of a sudden, the planets just seemed to align,” says Szydlow. The result was Get Your Tail on the Trail, a campaign to spread the word about the Corridor and encourage people to use it.
The centerpiece was the “165-Mile Challenge” in which participants logged the miles they hiked or biked on the trail from May through October, scoring incentives like T-shirts and water bottles along the way.
The organizers made sure the challenge wasn’t a solitary pursuit, planning monthly bike and hike outings that featured perks like canal barge rides; health fairs; meet-and-greets with the corridor’s friendly mascot, Molly the Mule; and a live band.
St. Luke’s also financed school field trips to the Corridor that involved historical re-enactments, Zumba and games.
“We talk to the kids about the importance of physical activity, show them the trail and have the schools help them to continue to track their miles,” says Coyle. “The kids are so excited to get out in nature. We brought the mule in one year, and you’d think we’d taken them to the greatest zoo in the world.”
By October 2013, 2,500 people had completed the 165-mile challenge, logging 250,000 miles. St. Luke’s then added a winter challenge of 30 miles, bringing snowshoeing and cross-country skiing to the mix.
A year later, Get Your Tail on the Trail had racked up 4,000 participants and 700,000 miles. “Our hope is to keep it going through the winter and then come back for a third spring-summer initiative,” Szydlow says.
The 2014 challenge added a voluntary survey for participants about their health status — weight, eating and exercise habits, etc. — “so that we can come back and survey them again at the end of the challenge to see how we’ve improved people’s lives,” Coyle explains. Sixty percent of the people who completed the initial survey were overweight or obese, and more than half did not exercise regularly.
“One of the goals of the program was not to go after the athlete,” says Szydlow. “It was to go after the people who are at risk.”
In future years, organizers hope to add some biometrics to the survey, checking and logging participants’ blood pressure and cholesterol levels at launch events.
One unexpected benefit of the collaboration was that it overcame both organizations’ hesitancy about social media. The Get Your Tail on the Trail Facebook page saw lots of action, with hundreds of participants posting photos and sharing experiences.
“The success of this program has caused us to look at social media in ways we have never done before,” Szydlow says. “This has really opened our eyes to the potential to interact with the public, track [their progress], see [their photos] and engage them in conversation.”
Both Garofalo and the St. Luke’s team have been asked to speak at health care and urban planning conferences about the success of the program. Garofalo says “at least half a dozen” of the nation’s heritage corridors have copied the idea.
“It’s already been recognized as a best practice,” she says. “We hit on a very good thing here.”