MANHATTAN — Nearly the same day that Gov. Laura Kelly was telling Kansans to stay home due to the looming COVID-19 pandemic, organizers of a popular Kansas State University program were telling them to get out and walk.


The two events merged well since many local health authorities had determined that outdoor exercise was an allowable activity during stay-at-home orders.


“The timing really was kind of miraculous,” said Sharolyn Jackson, coordinator of Walk Kansas, which just completed its 20th year. “We started this year’s program on March 15, and on March 16, we were instructed to start working from home.”


The sudden shift caused many of the planned, face-to-face events normally associated with Walk Kansas to be canceled, Jackson said.


“But we did know that Walk Kansas wouldn’t be canceled,” she said. “It was just going to be a little bit different this year.”


More than 7,000 people participated in this year’s program, which wrapped up May 8. Jackson said in lieu of face-to-face events, local extension agents offered online courses and shared information in newsletters and other ways.


“Our agents were very resourceful in putting a lot more of those things online and sharing through social media,” she said.


Walk Kansas is an eight-week, team-based program that encourages Kansans to accumulate miles through walking or other physical activity, and — using a map of Kansas — monitor their progress past points of interest across the state.


“We base the program on the physical activity guidelines for Americans,” Jackson said, noting that adults are encouraged to do 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week.


Walking is a highlighted activity, but Jackson notes that any activity that increases the heart rate can qualify for Walk Kansas miles. “Walking is something everyone can do,” she said, “and in the last two months, people have been outside and getting a lot more walking in. That’s been great.”


Aside from physical activity, Jackson said Walk Kansas encourages participants to work on improving their health through dietary and lifestyle changes. She noted that organizers published a weekly newsletter during this year’s program that highlighted traits that make healthy communities.


“We assume that we inherit our good health or our not-so-good health,” Jackson said. “Genes do determine a portion of our overall health quality, but it’s only 20%-25%. So the rest of the health quality that we have really is attributed to our lifestyle habits and to the environment in which we live.


“It’s important for people to know that they have a lot more control over that than they think.”