This year marks the third year of The Mile Starts Here, a weekly walking group for community members. The goal of the program is to share the wonderful parks, trails and walking routes in Independence, promote physical activity and help form friendship groups among community members so the walks will continue to grow. Last year, there were 115 walkers who participated throughout the season walking a total of 772 miles around the community.

The first walk of 2014 will be Wednesday, May 7 and will continue every Wednesday at 9 a.m. through the end of October. It is a lot of fun and completely free. Other opportunities for walking/physical activity in the area are often highlighted, as well as general health tips and incentives to motivate participants to keep walking. Free water and pedometers are also offered to those who join The Mile Starts Here program.

The program is truly beneficial to people who want to get outside and walk in their city but don’t want to walk alone. It also builds a great social atmosphere for the walkers. Furthermore, many participants enjoy discovering hidden trails and walks in their neighborhoods.

Each Wednesday there are anywhere from 10 to 40 residents joining the group on the designated trail of the week. This year the routes will be:

First Wednesday of the month: Waterfall Park at 4501 S. Bass Pro Drive. Join us there on May 7, June 4, July 2, Aug. 6, Sept. 3, and Oct. 1. Meet in the parking lot by the playground behind Bass Pro.

Second Wednesday of the month: McCoy Park at 800 N. Bess Truman Parkway. (the southeast corner of North Delaware Street and U.S. 24). Join us there on May 14, June 11, July 9, Aug. 13, Sept. 10, and Oct. 8.

Third Wednesday of the month: Independence Athletic Complex at 17800 E. Salisbury Road. Join us there on May 21, June 18, July 16, Aug. 20, Sept. 17, and Oct. 15.

Fourth Wednesday of the month: Rotary Park Trail at 10615 E. 24th St. South (South of East 23rd Street and just of south of Westport Road). Join us there on May 28, June 25, July 23, Aug. 27, Sept. 24, and Oct. 22.

Fifth Wednesday of the month: This year the fifth week will vary to fit in even more mile walking paths than before. On July 30, we will walk the Missouri Department Conservation Trail/Santa Fe Trail on the east side of Santa Fe Park at 2900 S. Santa Fe Road. Meet at the tennis courts near West 31st Street South. Then, on Oct. 29, we will walk the Community of Christ Temple trail at 1001 W. Walnut St. For this walk, meet at the roundabout in front of the Community of Christ Headquarters.

What are other reasons you should walk the trails of Independence? There are several ways in which walking can help improve your health. For example, regular brisk walking can help:

1. Fend off heart disease: Regular walkers have fewer heart attacks and strokes, have lower blood pressure, and have higher levels of healthy HDL cholesterol than couch sitters do.

2. Dim your chances of diabetes: Thirty minutes of walking a day makes your muscles more sensitive to insulin. That allows glucose to do its duty inside your cells.

3. Slim you down: Any physical activity is going to help you burn more calories than you eat. Plus, walking can help squelch chocolate cravings and nix the stress and anxiety that often lead to overeating.

4. Keep you sharp: Physical activity nourishes brain tissue and stimulates its production of neurons, synapses, and blood vessels. Some studies have found that walking can counter faltering memories in people older than age 50.

5. Reduce stress and rev up your energy: Not only can a walk perk you up when you need it, but it also helps improve the quality of your sleep, so you're more energetic all day long. Studies back up that walking benefits your mood -- and may even ward off depression and anxiety.

The faster, farther and more frequently you walk, the greater the benefits. Join The Mile Starts Here Wednesdays mornings throughout the summer. You will find that there’s a lot to gain out of a simple mile walk.

Larry Jones, MPH, is the director of the Independence Health Department.