Looking to feel better and have more energy in the new year?
How about adding a vegetable to whatever you are cooking? Or snowshoeing in the surrounding mountains? Or walking instead of driving to get where you are going?
Get Fit Great Falls has several ways to help with your goals of being healthier, and the best part is they are easy, affordable and fun. Thanks to continued funding from United Way, Get Fit has new events to pair with its ongoing efforts to help people get active and make healthy choices.
“We are in the mindset of having a healthy lifestyle throughout the year, not just in January when you hit the reset button,” said Erin Merchant, Get Fit Great Falls president. “We want to help Great Falls residents make a behavioral change they can stick with rather than having a goal that only lasts a month or two.”
“Just Add a Vegetable” is Get Fit’s latest idea on its mission to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Once a month, nutrition experts will spend the afternoon in the produce section at a local grocery store and talk to shoppers about adding a vegetable to whatever happens to be on the breakfast, lunch or dinner menu.
“If they are making soup, they can just add some celery or carrots,” said registered dietitian Susan Cooper. “If they are making pizza, just add some mushrooms. Or maybe get creative and add chopped beets or kale.”
“We want people to focus on a simple change, to just add a vegetable to whatever they are making,” she added.
So far, 2Js and Super One Foods have hosted “Just Add a Vegetable” events. Albertsons on 10th Avenue South will be hosting an event Jan. 10 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Along with learning how to combine veggies with the foods they already love, people can learn how to shop smart to minimize food costs, how to meal plan to minimize spoilage and how to introduce veggies to family members who fear them. Shoppers also can enter a drawing for a basket of fresh produce.
Another way Get Fit can help with your health goals is its annual Winter Trails Day, which is coming up Feb. 1 at Silver Crest Winter Recreation Area near Showdown. This is an opportunity for people of all ages to try out snowshoeing or cross-country skiing for free.
“It starts in the morning and goes through the afternoon,” said Jody Murray, Get Fit board member and prevention specialist with Great Falls Public Schools. “The guides are people who are good at it and love it.”
All the equipment is provided, though people need to register ahead of time. Registration opens Jan. 22 online at www.getfitgreatfalls.com.
“It’s very popular and fun,” Murray said. “There are 1, 2 and 3-mile hikes, a beginning cross-country ski tour and a kiddie snowshoe loop.”
Along with the snowshoe adventure, kids can get another helping of exercise through Fitness, Food, Family and Friends — or F4, a 2-year-old program that brings active play and nutrition information to the HANDS after-school program.
Last year, Get Fit partnered with HANDS in 13 elementary schools to offer the 8-week program, which teaches students about nutrition along with fitness skills that can be incorporated into fun games. Everything necessary for the program fit into a tote that traveled from school to school.
“Each week, the kids take home a worksheet with the moves of the week, things that strengthen their legs and strengthen their core,” said Murray, adding those skills are then used in games at HANDS. “The sheet also has nutrition information, everything from making sure you are drinking enough water to trying to eat new fruits and vegetables. It gives them something to take home and get their parents involved with.”
Pretests and post-tests have shown the F4 program is working, with more than 85 percent of the students either showing improvement or staying the same in at least half of the tested skills. This program was possible thanks to grants from United Way of Cascade Country, Montana Federal Credit Union, Benefis Healthcare and the Great Falls Public Schools Foundation. Now, each school has its own tote so HANDS can offer the program several times throughout the year.
“A big focus for Get Fit is on kids because we know healthy kids usually become healthy adults,” Merchant said. “And we see that reversed statistically. If you are obese as a kid, you are more likely to be obese as an adult.”
Park Pals is another way Get Fit works to keep kids active. Through this summer program, exciting science projects and physical activities are planned every weekday at local parks. The Great Falls Public Schools food truck partners with the program so kids can get a free meal before or after they come out to play.
“In 2019, we were able to recruit volunteers from the AmeriCorps Vista program to help with Park Pals, so we were able to expand our number of parks,” said Merchant. “Adding more parks last year means serving more students and hitting more demographics.”
Get Fit volunteers don’t just want to improve its programs to get people to be active. They also are working to improve the parks themselves by making them more accessible and improve other spaces around Great Falls through the Building Active Communities Initiative, or BACI.
A few years back, some of the leading experts in this statewide initiative held a free training in Great Falls.
“The trainers walked us around downtown and pointed out to us places that could be better, more connected and turned into spaces where the community could gather and be active,” said Kim Skornogoski, a Get Fit volunteer and United Way’s marketing director. “After that training, we continued to meet and build our team, bringing on different partners and coming up with ideas.”
One of the group’s first efforts was transforming Davidson Plaza into more of an active space during the downtown summer sidewalk sale.
“We had ping-pong table set up and large checkers on the ground,” Skornogoski said. “We took a couple of parking spaces and created a seating area with grass and put grass in the plaza itself. We brought in bands. We basically brought in different elements of what would be part of an open, active space.”
Throughout the day, they asked people what they would like to see in an active space in Great Falls. Now they are trying to bring those ideas to life.
“Another big project we’ve done is the crosswalk painting,” said Skornogoski. “That does a number of things people don’t even realize. It inspires traffic to slow down. It also connects spaces. And when spaces are connected, people are more inspired to walk between them.”
Several local organizations are involved with this initiative to create a more vibrant downtown. Get Fit is hoping that by changing the environment, people will change their behavior and walk more. The business organizations are hoping for a more active downtown so people will shop and enjoy the great restaurants. Partners like NeighborWorks are hoping an increase in activity downtown will decrease the amount of crime in that area.
“All of these people have different particular goals as part of their organization’s mission,” Skornogoski said. “But by doing these things, we all are achieving our goals. It’s been really fun, and all of our efforts have been really well received by the community.”
More crosswalk painting, including school crosswalks, is yet to come. They also are planning more studies on how walkable the community is to identify problem areas in parks and downtown.
“The other big goal is called wayfinding,” Skornogoski said. “The idea is if you have signage that points to the River’s Edge Trail or a sign that says the C.M. Russell Museum is five blocks away, it will increase the use of those places and also encourage people to walk to them.”
Like many efforts funded by United Way, Get Fit’s projects and programs are successful because of many organizations coming together to make things happen.
“It’s critical that we have so many great partners who are advancing the work together,” she said. “Get Fit is entirely volunteer-run, and we operate on a shoestring budget. For the last four years, United Way has provided around $5,000 in funding, which amounts to about half our costs for our different efforts every year.”
Get Fit has brought many people together in the effort to create a healthier lifestyle in our community, and the efforts are working.
“In the past, we never really measured how events like Summer Trails Day, Winter Trails Day and Come Out and Play with Abby Wambach were changing behavior,” Skornogoski said. “Now, being part of the United Way grants process, we are looking at the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in schools and seeing that investing in our kids is already paying off. They’re eating more vegetables, getting more involved with sports and exercising more. Kids are actually changing their behavior.”
United Way of Cascade County asks for money once a year. Money raised during its fall campaign supports 34 local nonprofit programs and United Way’s community impact work. People can give monthly or one-time gifts through our website at www.uwccmt.org or can send donations directly to United Way at PO Box 1343, Great Falls, MT 59403.