Center Inspires Active Living in New Hampshire Communities

by Candi Helseth

Circle Trot

Participants in the annual Circle Trot run/walk event in Plymouth, N.H., raise money for local fitness programs while having fun.

At the foothills of the White Mountains in New Hampshire’s North Country and Lakes Region, the scenic forested and lake-covered terrain is a popular attraction for outdoor enthusiasts like rock climbers, bikers, hikers and skiers. Yet many of the region’s 35,000 residents don’t take advantage of these recreational areas. Instead they struggle with the same health problems marked by inactivity and sedentary living that are epidemic in rural areas nationwide, according to Barbara McCahan, Ph.D., director of the Plymouth State University (PSU) Center for Active Living and Healthy Communities (CfALHC). Using research, education and community partnerships, CfALHC attempts to change residents’ lifestyles for the better.

“What we’ve found is that we have an aging population with virtually few or no amenities that make it easier to be physically active,” McCahan said. “Not everyone is able to rock climb, ski or bicycle. Even walking forest trails may be a challenge, because it requires outdoor confidence and a level of comfort in dealing with obstacles such as insects, animals, poison ivy, ice and snow. Hypokinetic diseases such as obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, osteoporosis and adult-onset diabetes are prevalent. And these small rural towns are not equipped with adequate places and spaces with safe and easy access to physical activity.”

Tapping the talents of PSU students, CfALHC has initiated several programs in surrounding towns that are changing those small-town dynamics. At Inter-Lakes Senior Center in Meredith, adults ranging in age from 60 to 86 exercise under the direction of PSU student teachers. Center Director Becky Carey said participants routinely show improvements in balance, bone density and cardiovascular endurance when PSU staff conducts six-month follow-up assessments. Seeing improvements in their patients, local physicians refer other patients to the class, Carey added.

“This class is just incredible, I just can’t say enough good about what this program has done for our members!” Carey exclaimed. “Barbara and her staff put in a lot of groundwork before we started and that really paid off. Our members improve physically but they get so much more out of it too. They learn from the students and the students learn from them. It’s so fun to see how that age gap disappears.”

A collaborative partnership between CfALHC and The Circle Program of Plymouth also blends the generations. Designed for 10 to 16-year-old socio-economically challenged girls, Circle’s programming includes an intensive summer camp followed by a one-on-one relationship year round with an adult mentor. PSU students also plan and execute a fundraiser, The Circle Trot, to support program expenses. Circle Trot features a 10K run, 5K run and walk options.

“Participation has doubled the last two years,” McCahan said. “Circle Trot attracts all kinds of community members, including walkers, joggers, runners, parents with children walking and in strollers, older adults and dogs!”

PSU senior Lacey Mailman, who has been involved in Circle Trot and the Inter-Lakes class, said the hands-on experience benefited her in ways she’d never have experienced “out of a book.”

“I learned so much better than I would have sitting in a classroom writing a paper about something,” she said. “I was a bit anxious when I started at the senior center, but I really loved it. I’ve been an athlete myself and had worked with younger kids but never with older adults. Getting out into the community really helped me better use what I am learning in college.”

CfALHC also partnered with the Eco-Learning Farm Stand (ELFS) in the development of collaborative community gardens. Adult volunteers and area children reconnect with the land as they plant and harvest gardens. At the local elementary school, teachers incorporate gardening into their curriculum. Area food pantries and other community help organizations benefit from garden donations of fresh, pesticide-free produce.

Through the Partners Enabling Active Rural Living (PEARL) project begun in 2009, CfALHC faculty and student researchers team with community residents to identify environmental, personal and organizational factors that enable or prevent active living in the residents’ communities. Then they plan projects that address needs specific to those communities.

Students and resident volunteers used digital cameras and GPS navigation to map environmental features that encourage or obstruct active living in three surrounding rural towns. Activity models using Google-style maps, which identify what is needed to make these towns “activity friendly,” are in various stages of progress.

“We involve communities in planning and working on projects important to their community,” McCahan explained. “We bring the expertise in terms of research and evidence-based practices. We also bring undergraduate and graduate students from the university to help with these programs.”

Plymouth State University Students Help Plant Gardens

Local residents enjoy gardens that students from Plymouth State University help them plant.

In Rumney, the ballpark used primarily by adult teams has been upgraded. In Warren and Plymouth, where skateboarding is popular among youth, skate parks are getting exciting new additions. New children’s playground equipment is being installed in Plymouth’s town park. Residents from Alexandria, Bridgewater, Bristol and Hebron are working with PSU to build non-motorized transportation paths for walking and bicycling around Newfound Lake, a major attraction for all four towns.

CfALHC is funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). McCahan said a full report of CfALHC’s research and results is being compiled, which will be published in the Journal of Rural Social Sciences.

As a 23-year PSU faculty member, McCahan lives what she preaches. A personal trainer, swimmer and skier, she has more than 25 years of experience as an exercise specialist, fitness trainer and lifestyle coach. She is a full Professor in PSU’s Health and Human Performance Department, teaching classes in exercise science and health promotion.

To learn more about CfALHC, contact Barbara McCahan at 603-535 2578 or

Back to: Summer 2012 Issue