LOGAN, W.Va. - Howard Wooten and Leonard Hovis are old pals who share a history of heart problems. Now they share a daily walk, logging some 1,400 miles a year.
Along with six other friends - all with similar health problems - Wooten and Hovis started walking on doctors' orders and along the way became the poster boys for a push to get people exercising in the least healthy part of the state.
In August, the West Virginia chapter of America On The Move (www.americaonthemove.org) distributed 902 pedometers and step-counting charts to residents of five southern counties who signed up for the program. Participants were asked to use the pedometers for six weeks, keep track of their steps and send in the results. The goal was to see if pedometers encourage people to walk more.
Of all five counties involved, Logan took to the pedometers with the most enthusiasm - more than a third of the participants were from there, including about 200 volunteers from Logan Regional Medical Center.
"Many of them thought they did a lot of walking, and they didn't," said Carol Cole, the hospital's marketing director. "It was very eye-opening."
According to the state Department of Health and Human Resources, Logan is the most obese county in West Virginia.
"If people here are going to improve their health, we're going to need to do a lot more in terms of prevention," said Shannon Meade, who helped coordinate the program on behalf of the Logan County Family Resource Network.
Meade approached businesses, churches, even Girl Scout troops to drum up interest.
As the groups involved plan a second phase of the program, they're focusing on Logan as an example of how to get rural residents with severe health problems up and moving.
West Virginia On The Move Executive Director Sophia Werning said that many people aren't aware that something as simple as walking can bring real benefits. Werning leads the state chapter of America On The Move, a Boston-based nonprofit that encourages people to take simple steps to improve their diet and exercise.
"A lot of people have the idea that you need to get a personal trainer or you need to devote hours and hours a day to fitness, and they think, 'That's not for me,' " she said.
Researchers looking at about 20 studies concluded that pedometers help people walk an additional mile each day, but only if they log their steps, according to the November issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"For a lot of people I've worked with, especially the sedentary and lower activity people, just having it on their hip is encouragement to do more," said Karen Croteau, a professor of exercise, health, and sport sciences at the University of Southern Maine, Gorham, whose research was included in the new report.
Two years ago, when Wooten started walking with friends at Chief Logan State Park, his cholesterol level was over 280. Today, it's down to 120 and the 72-year-old insurance agent has lost 20 pounds.
"My doctor says walking every day has been like a miracle pill for me," said Hovis, 67.
The friends got pedometers through the program, and learned their daily walk added up to roughly four miles a day.
But good health is just one of the benefits, the men say. What they really enjoy is the camaraderie, walking through the state park in bad weather as well as good, talking and joking about everything from presidential politics to college football.
And there are other motivations to make the daily 8:15 a.m. trip to the park.
"He comes because he knows we'll talk about him if he's not there," Hovis said with a laugh, pointing at Wooten.