Photo by Alysa Landry
The 24th annual “Just Move It” program hopes to cover 40,000 miles this year with walks and runs in an effort to combat obesity on the Navajo Nation.

Just Move It: Teaching Navajo Nation Members That Exercise Is Fun

Alysa Landry

Forty thousand miles.

That’s how much ground Navajos hope to cover this year during the 24th annual “Just Move It” program, a series of 137 community events in four states that draw hundreds or even thousands of runners and walkers to roads, sidewalks, paved trails or dirt paths. The events, which persist even during inclement weather, kicked off May 1 and will conclude July 28—and organizers are already predicting record-high numbers of participants.

“We’re growing every year,” said Roberta Diswood, coordinator for the 28 events in the Shiprock, New Mexico, region. “We have lots of first-time participants, lots of youth, but also lots of grandmas.”

A finish line at one of the Just Move It events on the Navajo Nation. (Photo by Alysa Landry)

The federally funded program began with 20 events in 1993 and attracted only 482 participants. Last year, more than 40,100 people attended, covering tens of thousands of miles on foot.

It’s all part of a reservation-wide effort to get people moving as the Navajo Nation faces health crises like obesity, heart disease and diabetes. According to the most recent State of Obesity Report by the Trust for America’s Health, 81 percent of Natives in Arizona are obese or overweight. The numbers are similar in New Mexico, where 78 percent of Natives are obese or overweight.

That’s significantly higher than the nationwide average for American Indians and Alaska Natives, who have the highest rates of adult obesity in the country, at 54 percent.

The Navajo Nation’s “Just Move It” program is designed to introduce healthy habits to people of all ages. But it’s also lots of fun, said 55-year-old Rufison Benally, who has attended so many events during the last 20 years, he lost track.

Benally, of Montezuma Creek, Utah, was one of about 350 people who attended a four-mile walk and 10K run Monday in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. A maintenance worker in the nearby oil fields, Benally rushed to the evening event so fast he forgot his running shoes.

“Walking is something to do,” he said as he trudged over sandy trails in a pair of Wranglers and size 9 steel-toe boots. “Sometimes out here on the reservation, we get in the habit of never leaving the house.”

The 24th annual “Just Move It” program hopes to cover 40,000 miles this year with walks and runs in an effort to combat obesity on the Navajo Nation. Here a group stretches. (Photo by Alysa Landry)

Nearby, 21-year-old Ashley Kady walked slowly, her pregnant belly protruding. A first-time mom, Kady described exercise as something she does on an “as needed basis,” but she’s hoping to instill healthier habits with her own children.

“This is my first,” she said of her unborn child. “It’s time to exercise more than once a year.”

The event, which came near the end of this year’s program, began at 6:45 p.m. with quick instructions and warm-up exercises. Black thunderclouds hovered overhead as athletes bolted from the starting line and trekked courses through the desert landscape, navigating asphalt paths, slogging through loose sand and tiptoeing over cattle guards.

For Sid Whitehair and Char Manygoats, the event was a chance to see a different part of the reservation by foot, and to participate in a non-competitive sport. The program hosts more than 130 events annually, divided into eight service regions on the sprawling, 27,000-square-mile reservation.

A young runner participates in one of the Just Move It events on the Navajo Nation. (Photo by Alysa Landry)

Whitehair and Manygoats, both of Coppermine, Arizona, decided to attend at least one event in every region this year. They’ve participated in 12 so far.

“It’s fun to see the area, meet the people,” Whitehair said. “It costs money to go to all of these, but really, your health can’t compete with money.”

The events are billed as “soft-paced,” enticing people to go as far as they want at a comfortable speed, Diswood said. Even the longer courses are non-competitive.

“We want people to learn that exercise is fun,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is to combat disease, but we also want people to know that they can do this.”

This year’s final event is a walk and “warrior challenge” on July 28 in Shiprock, New Mexico. Registration starts at 5:30 p.m., and the run/walk starts at 6:45. Events are free and include a T-shirt for participants.

For more information, visit Navajojmi.com.

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