Sonja Johnson is always looking to take one extra step toward better health and an improved quality of life.

And when Johnson says “keep it moving,” she means it literally.

“I’m not going to stop,” Johnson said. “My goal is 10,000 steps every day.”

Sonja Johnson (Submitted)Sonja Johnson (Submitted)

The Dallas County, Alabama, resident is a standout member of the DIAL program. The Deep South IVR-supported Active Lifestyle, or simply DIAL, includes participants in Sumter, Dallas, Green, Hale, Marengo and Choctaw counties.

Participants receive either a Fitbit or a pedometer, a device that counts steps, along with continued health information and support from staff members.

DIAL participants also receive automated phone calls to encourage them to increase their physical activity. IVR, or interactive voice response, is the process of using phone calls and automated messaging.

DIAL is designed to encourage residents in Alabama’s Black Belt region to get more exercise. The program is led by Dorothy Pekmezi, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior at the UAB School of Public Health.

The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center Office of Community Outreach & Engagement’s community coordinators help present the DIAL project to local communities.

Dorothy Pekmezi, Ph.D.Dorothy Pekmezi, Ph.D.

Johnson has turned the DIAL program into a competition to push herself more each day and recently met her goal of 10,000 daily steps.

“I feel accomplished. I really do,” she said. “And I have the drive.”

Johnson said reaching that goal was a hard-earned, proud moment that was not free from frustration. However, she said the DIAL team encouraged her when the goal seemed too hard to reach.

“I had some stumbling blocks, though,” she said. “I tried, and I tried, and I tried, but I could never get to that 10,000 steps,” Johnson said.

After a few adjustments to the technology, including replacing her pedometer with a Fitbit, a wristwatch-style fitness tracker, Johnson was on her way.

The change made the difference, mainly because Johnson could easily look on her wrist and see her progress. And the messages continued to urge her to take the next step.

“The motivation of being able to see it helped a lot. It’s good motivation,” she said. “It would say ‘feed me’ or ‘10 more to go.’”

Johnson said positive messages on the device and encouragement from the DIAL staff urged her to continue moving and extending her path even farther.

“I really wanted to quit, but those ladies really helped,” she said.

While Johnson credits DIAL staff for her motivation, they say she is the real inspiration.

“Ms. Johnson has been very committed to the DIAL study,” said Chi Okeke, Dallas County, Alabama, coordinator for the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement. “I am so proud of her progress and inspired by her journey to wellness."

After reaching 10,000 daily steps, Sonja Johnson received the Sneakers badge in her Fitbit app. (Submitted)After reaching 10,000 daily steps, Sonja Johnson received the Sneakers badge in her Fitbit app. (Submitted)

DIAL will help UAB health researchers understand how automated systems help encourage exercise and how similar programs could be expanded in other rural communities.

“Sonja is one of our participants who has truly been committed to the program and to achieving her fitness goals,” said Program Manager Sh'Nese Townsend. “She set a personal goal earlier this month to hit the DIAL study step goal of 10,000 and she did it. We are so proud of Sonja’s accomplishments and we look forward to sharing in the successes of all of our participants, both large and small, over the coming years.”

Johnson’s stamina has increased. She also sees physical evidence of her progress. Since she joined DIAL in September 2020, Johnson has lost 25 pounds.

But Johnson said she has an even greater reason to stay on her path of physical fitness.

“I have grandchildren that I want to be around for,” she said. “That is another thing that helps me stay motivated.”

DIAL is seeking to expand in Marengo County, Alabama. Staff will actively recruit for participants starting April 17.

For more information about DIAL and how to participate, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call (205) 934-7145.

This story originally ran in the March 2021 issue of Community Connections, the monthly newsletter of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.