When troublesome knees forced Phil Heit to quit running in 2003, he took up speed walking.

When troublesome knees forced Phil Heit to quit running in 2003, he took up speed walking.

His transition to low-impact steps has had quite an effect on his neighbors in New Albany.

Nine years ago, Heit founded the New Albany Walking Classic, a premier walking race that attracts competitors from across the nation.

The popularity of the race -- which organizers bill as the largest in the country with about 3,000 annual participants -- helped him launch other local health initiatives, including the nonprofit organization Healthy New Albany in 2011.

"Everything started with the walk," Heit said. "It's all tied in to the walk. That led to Healthy New Albany."

Earlier this month, Heit's volunteer efforts made him one of five Jefferson Award winners in central Ohio. The awards, which are part of a national program that recognizes "individuals who do extraordinary things in their communities without expecting a reward," are presented annually by WBNS-10TV and Nationwide Insurance.

Heit was nominated for the award by the New Albany Community Foundation, which helped establish Healthy New Albany at Heit's suggestion.

"Phil is a force of nature," said Craig Mohre, executive director of the New Albany Community Foundation. "His sincerity and passion for helping others live healthier -- and therefore happier --lives make him a uniquely effective leader. He is transforming our community."

Healthy New Albany has accomplished quite a bit in two years.

Organization members established a community garden southeast of Village Hall that had 86 plots used by 70 adults and 76 children in 2012.

"(Heit) has the unique ability to inspire others to dream big and take shared visions to the next level," said Suzanne Lucas, founder of the New Albany Community Garden. "He has a confident, supportive style and has empowered community members to work together to build a better and healthier future for New Albany.

"His vision of a healthier New Albany seems to have no limit."

Healthy New Albany reorganized the New Albany Farmers Market, which is held on Thursdays in the spring, summer and early fall at the Market Square retail center and in the winter at the New Albany Church of the Resurrection on Dublin-Granville Road.

The organization also hosts a free lecture series that features speakers on various health-related topics.

Most recently, Healthy New Albany was involved in the planning of a 52,000-square-foot, two-story community health facility at the southwest corner of Johnstown and Village Hall roads. The $12.25-million project is expected to begin this spring.

Plans call for the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center to lease 70 percent of the facility for clinical outpatient services, physician offices and rehabilitation services. Nationwide Children's Hospital also will have 40 to 50 employees in the building providing consultations in sports medicine and orthopedics.

The first floor of the building will include space for a fitness facility and programs led by Healthy New Albany.

"We want to create a model for how a community promotes health, how it starts and how they begin an initiative, how we set benchmarks for community well-being using evidence-based research and how we then can bring it to the forefront in the country," Heit said. "We want to show how we can reduce health-care costs and keep people healthy.

"We're working with (Ohio State) and Nationwide Children's (Hospital), some of the best minds in the country, and all of us working together can really prove what innovative programs can be provided to local employees, schools and have an impact on everyone."

The New Albany Co. donated land for the community health center and is developing health-focused retail space next door, partly because of the momentum created by the community health facility, said Tom Rubey, development director for the New Albany Co.

"I do really admire (Heit's) vision for the community and don't think there are many people who could have come up with this brand-new approach, the direction that New Albany should be going," New Albany Mayor Nancy Ferguson said. "His vision was so right and it's exactly where we should be headed."

And it all began with the walk, Heit says.

"Healthy New Albany was an idea," Heit said. "We didn't want to do just a walk, but a walk that had more of a greater vision. We use the walk as a footprint to promote well-being."

Heit, a professor emeritus of physical activity and educational services at Ohio State, began running in his hometown of New York City in 1969.

He was part of a group that started running in Central Park before running was considered "cool," he said.

"I was part of the original running club, the New York Road Runners Club, that put on the marathon," Heit said.

The New York City Marathon was established by the running club in 1970.

Heit moved to Columbus in 1976 to take a job at Ohio State, and he served on the committee that planned the first Columbus Marathon in 1980.

In 2003, though, he began having knee trouble.

At first, Heit said, he was devastated, but he soon learned he could walk at a brisk pace and reap the same benefits as running. He asked a couple of friends in New Albany to walk with him and the New Albany Walking Club was born.

The walking club was instrumental in launching the first New Albany Walking Classic in 2005.

This year's race is scheduled Sunday, Sept. 8.

Heit has lived in New Albany with his wife, Sheryl, since 2002. He has two daughters, Eve and Gay, both of whom live in San Francisco with their spouses. He also has two grandchildren.

He has co-authored more than 400 books on health education with Linda Meeks. Their book, Comprehensive School Health Education, is in its seventh edition and is considered one of "the most widely adopted textbooks in its field since 1981," according to Healthy New Albany.