With help from recently certified health ambassador Vicki Cowell, the local University of Tennessee Extension office hopes to make Loudon County healthier one person at a time.

Cowell, who serves as The Prevention Alliance of Loudon County program coordinator, became the state’s first health ambassador through the Tennessee Extension Health & Wellness Ambassador program.

“For many, many years Extension has had kind of a volunteer certification program called master gardener and that’s where people from the community come in and learn a lot about home horticulture and then they in turn take that knowledge and turn around and become volunteers for the organization in order to alleviate some of the workload off the extension agents that are trying to meet the needs in the community,” Sheila Borders, UT Extension family consumer science representative, said. “This is an expansion of that.

“The Extension Health & Wellness was developed on that model, but they come in and ... it was 40 hours broken up over 12 weeks,” she added. “They learn anything and everything extension teaches according to health and wellness, and everything that we do with extension is all research-based, so she’s not going to go out and teach the grapefruit diet or (anything). It’s research-based, and she’s gone through this training.”

Cowell join a handful of others from Bledsoe, Meigs and Morgan counties serving in the pilot group, Borders said.

“Now I feel confident in knowing that Vicki understands how Extension works, what our goal is and what kind of information we want disseminated among the community, so I have no problem in handing over any health and wellness curriculum to Vicki saying, ‘Go forth and teach. Just let me know who you contacted’,” Borders said.

Cowell went through an additional 40 hours of community service, which she’s put to good use through a FORCE walking group. FORCE stands for the five components of fitness — flexibility, outlook, resistance, cardio and energy.

“Flexibility — so we might talk about why we stretch and then we talk about increasing flexibility and range of motion and all those things,” Cowell said. “Then also included is the E part is the energy where we were talking about the food portion, so the energy we talk about different things, like this one is serving size versus portion size, reading nutrition labels, and with each one pretty much I have a website that they can go to and check out more information.

“... Studies show that a healthy community has fewer issues with opioid addictions and things like that,” she added. “You visit the hospital less, you have fewer doctor visits. When your body is healthy you just in turn have a better lifestyle. That’s what we’re trying to encourage people to just live a healthier lifestyle and getting up and walking is just an easy way we felt like to do it. We wanted to create a community within the walk club. We only have scheduled walks once a week, but the hope is that you gain friendships through those walks and you encourage one another to continue that fitness other days of the week, or you just encourage each other mentally, too. Having like-minded people together and to listen, just encourage.”

The walking group has met at 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays since May 4 on various walking trails in Loudon and Roane counties.

Cowell said the plan was to walk for 26 weeks, take a break in the winter and then resume in warmer weather for another 26 weeks.

“I think a lot of the fun of it, too, is all the different locations, because it’s never the same place two weeks in row,” Borders said. “Getting to see parts of Roane County that I have never seen and even parts of Loudon County even though I’ve been here for years and years.”

“Highlighting the trails that are in your community has really been cool,” Cowell added. “You walk and you go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was here,’ and even walking some of the East Lakeshore Trail here in Loudon County, the trails are almost side by side but they’re so different when you walk into them. You have the different trees and so I found that was very interesting that you were literally 50 yards from a different trail but this one looks so different.”

Borders said she hoped to “create an army” with a certified person now in Loudon County. She wants to work with other individuals and organizations.

“There are so many organizations doing great work,” Borders said. “You’ve got the coordinated school health for both school systems, you’ve got the health education alliance, you’ve got the health improvement council, you’ve all of these people — the health department — trying to do the same thing, and this is a way I see it — others may agree or disagree — but it’s a way for all of us to get on the same page, have the same message, and hearing the same message over and over again only reinforces it and hopefully of that will then stick and really make a difference in some lives in our community to make it a healthier community.”

For more information about walks, call Cowell at 865-816-8445. For more information about becoming a health ambassador, call Borders at 865-458-5612.

Information on walking locations can be found at https://loudon.tennessee.edu/family-programs/health-wellness/force- fitness/.