On the Trail of Better Health in South L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Health officials are touting a new trail that opened Saturday in the Baldwin Hills as a potential remedy for high rates of heart disease, stroke and diabetes in nearby minority communities.

The trail was stitched together from several old paths in the Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area and offers sweeping views of the Los Angeles Basin. The target audience is South Los Angeles, where there is little open space and, say health officials, too many health problems tied to sedentary lifestyles and fatty diets.

Lining the Walk for Life Trail in the Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area are large signs offering tips such as "Don't let fried foods and sugary treats crowd out fruits, vegetables and whole grains."

Another sign includes a photo of a doctor checking the blood pressure of an overweight woman. The implied message: Don't let this be you.

"We wanted to build something that anyone could do and it doesn't cost anything," said Esther Feldman, the president of Community Conservancy International, a West L.A. nonprofit that pushed for the project. "Everybody said walking is the No. 1 thing you can do for your health."

The main trail is a three-mile loop, but hikers can also use two shorter loops. Feldman said the nonprofit and other groups will place pamphlets in health centers, churches and schools to inform area residents about the trail.

Others that chipped in with funding and labor were the California Endowment, a philanthropic group that steers money to health-related projects, and the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. The trail cost an estimated $160,000.

In recent years, public health officials across the nation have been honing a theory that, in essence, says that the circumference of a person's waist is partially determined by where he or she lives.

Whether it's the city or the suburbs, people are thought to get less exercise in areas where there are few parks and sidewalks, more crime and where long commutes are the norm.

Health experts say those problems are magnified in urban areas, where blacks and Latinos tend to live. The rate of heart disease is 29% higher among blacks than whites, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Blacks are also more susceptible to fatal stroke and high blood pressure.

"There are days when my mouth is moving, but this isn't," said hiker Jacqueline LeFalle, 56, of Los Angeles, as she patted her rear. A psychologist at UC Riverside, LeFalle makes a three-hour round-trip commute by train three days each week and spends her days talking and listening to patients. She walks in a park near her home, but the new trail, she said, gives her more options.

The trail is desperately needed in the area, said Toni Yancey, an associate professor at UCLA's School of Public Health.

"When you look at overweight data from 30 to 40 years ago, African Americans were thinner than whites," said Yancey, an early proponent of the trail. "Our genes haven't changed in the last several decades, what's changed is the food environment. We are surrounded by a host of highly palatable foods that require minimal energy to acquire and consume -- and we've engineered a lot of physical energy out of our lives."

As if to prove her point, anyone driving to the park from the north on La Cienega Boulevard must run a gantlet that includes Taco Bell, Carl's Jr., McDonald's and 7-Eleven, home of the 44-ounce Super Big Gulp.

A health fair also was held at the park Saturday and from the looks of things, the trail organizers were preaching to the converted. A few said they were surprised a Super Big Gulp of soda contained 38 cubes of sugar -- as one nutrition booth informed them -- but no one confessed to being a couch potato.

Yet once the trail opened, hikers weren't exactly tearing up the path. Many people walked to the base of the first hill and then quickly retreated.

Others soldiered on and were rewarded with splendid vistas of the city and Santa Monica Bay, from Point Dume in Malibu to the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Even the Santa Monica Freeway -- usually a traffic-ridden trench of misery -- seemed peaceful from atop Autumn Mountain.

"I didn't even know this trail existed. It's absolutely breathtaking," said Renate Willis, 55, as she took in the view. "I'm a diabetic and I walk every day. But from now on, I'm walking on this side of town."

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