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WHAT

Cape Cod National Seashore teams up with Cape Cod Healthcare to promote wellness and exercise on five scenic walking trails.

Start your walk on the elevated boardwalk that meanders along a large freshwater wetland spotted with ponds and marshes. Cattails fringe the ponds while white water lilies sway in the slight breeze skipping across the water’s surface.

From there, continue along a sandy trail, skirting a vast system of sand dunes that extend toward Race Point and the Atlantic Ocean. Then, gently climb into a mature forest of shady beech trees.

You can imagine Thoreau walking much the same route nearly 200 years ago.

Taking in the beauty of the Outer Cape might be a reward unto itself, but this particular 1.2 mile hike also is designed to benefit your health.

The Beech Forest Trail in Provincetown is one of five walking venues selected among a dozen throughout the National Seashore for Healthy Parks, Healthy People, an initiative of Cape Cod National Seashore and Cape Cod Healthcare. The other four trails are: the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail off Marconi Station Site in Wellfleet, Pilgrim Spring and Small’s Swamp trails in Truro, and Nauset Marsh Trail off Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham.

There are no fees associated with any of these five designated trails.

Every year, more than four million people – visitors, residents and seasonal residents– enjoy Cape Cod National Seashore’s 44,000 acres of nature and recreation, from the Great Beach to the Herring River, and from Great Island to Fort Hill.

The National Seashore’s 12 trails cross dunes in the Province Lands, follow marsh around Salt Pond and traverse the heights of Truro. There also are bike trails ranging from Coast Guard Beach in Eastham to Race Point at the tip of Provincetown.

Unlike many of the nation’s other national parks, Cape Cod National Seashore literally is a part of the community, winding through six towns: Chatham, Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown.

CONNECTING HEALTH AND NATURE

The Healthy Parks, Healthy People initiative has been underway elsewhere in the country and is expanding on the Cape.

The National Seashore is lending park rangers, scientists and staff to the effort. Cape Cod Healthcare has mobilized physicians, physical therapists, nurses and volunteers. Sports management students from Johnson & Wales University in Providence provided research and helped to develop the program.

Dr. Elissa Thompson, a cardiologist and medical director of Cape Cod Hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation program, says the Healthy Parks, Healthy People program combines healthy living with access to Cape Cod’s natural beauty.

“We have a crisis in this country in health care that is draining the economy, especially the epidemic of obesity and diabetes,” she said. “On the Cape especially, we have a very large baby boomer population, and they are entering the most expensive medical time of their lives.”

Thompson’s cardiac rehab program is designed to restore the health of heart attack and heart surgery patients through a combination of exercise, healthy eating, smoking cessation and weight management.

“Exercise has a profound effect on blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol,” Dr. Thompson said. “What we don’t have evidence for is what makes some people motivated to be physical and others not.”

“As a physician, I ask myself, ‘How can I help someone move from Point A to Point B? Some do so at the drop of a hat. Others never will do so. The preponderance of people are in the mid-dle. How do we get them from here to there?”

Dr. Thompson’s team will research who is participating in the Healthy Parks, Healthy People initiative, why they come and why they stay.

Health care systems today are under pressure from the federal government to prevent disease and illness. That’s what makes Healthy Parks, Healthy People not just appealing, but essential, she said.

Among other activities, the Healthy Parks, Healthy People initiative will:

  • Conduct trail assessments throughout the National Seashore to identify levels of difficulty, including how many calories will be burned during a slow to brisk walk.
  • Hold health fairs and other events to bring specialists into the National Seashore to educate and interact with walkers, runners and bikers.
  • Create partnerships with other community groups and individuals, ranging from veterans and business groups to schools and senior centers.
  • Encourage food vendors to offer healthy alternatives. Far Land on the Beach, at Herring Cove Beach, already offers healthy alternatives as a NPS concessionaire, as do all concessionaires at national parks across the country.

The Healthy Parks initiative is not just about physical health. It’s also about mental and spiritual well-being, said Sue Moynihan, chief of interpretation and cultural resources at the National Seashore. She also coordinates the many volunteers who work there.

“One of the things we noticed after 9/11 was how many people went to the national parks for mental wellness,” she said. “They wanted, actually needed, to connect with nature. It soothes you and gives you the confidence you will endure.”