Mercy Health hopes to have more than 20,000 participants for this year's Heart Mini Marathon & Walk on March 17.

Since Mercy Health became title sponsor of the American Heart Association's annual Mini Marathon & Walk three years ago, participation and contributions have increased 50 percent.

"We're very excited about our role," says Lee Ann Liska, chief operating officer for Mercy Heath, which operates six hospitals in Southwest Ohio and is opening a seventh "” Mercy Hospital West on North Bend Road at Interstate 74 "” later this year.

"Over the last three years as we've launched the Mercy Heart Institute, we've tried to become the face of wellness."

The Heart Institute, which has grown from 20 to 29 cardiologists across Mercy's system, offers a managed approach from emergency and diagnostic care to surgical and interventional treatment and rehabilitation "” throughout the Mercy Health network.

Last year, the Mini Marathon, which includes a 15K run, a half-marathon and a 5K run, plus a series of walks of varying distances, drew 19,327 participants and raised $2.1 million to support heart research and an information campaign on the disease. That was up significantly from the 13,000 participants and $1.4 million raised in 2010.

For this year's Mercy Health Heart Mini Marathon & Walk on March 17, organizers are shooting for more than $2.2 million in contributions and more than 20,000 participants.

"Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in America, but it's less well known that stroke is the No. 3 killer," Liska says.

Mercy Hospital West, opening later this year, will feature a Heart Center with the first open-heart program offered on the West Side of Greater Cincinnati.

The 250-bed hospital in Green Township also will include a cancer care center, an orthopedics center, a women's health center and maternity care.

The Heart Center will include a cardiovascular intensive care unit with capacity for 18 patients. There will be two dedicated cardiac operating rooms, two hybrid cardiac operating rooms, where both vascular and cardiac catheritizations and open-heart procedures can be performed, and four catheritization labs.

"Mercy Health is a big supporter of the American Heart Association," says Nanette Bentley, Mercy Health's director of public relations.

To promote participation in the Mini Marathon, Mercy hosts an array of public Wear Red Day events in February.

The Mini Marathon weekend starts with a Health and Fitness Expo on March 16 at the Duke Energy Convention Center. It will feature free fitness screenings, exhibits and special activities for children including a free Kids' Fund run for ages 7 and under.

There are two other big annual Heart Association events for Mercy Health: National Eating Healthy Day in November, where organizations are encouraged to adopt healthier food choices to build awareness of good nutrition, and National Walking Day, which is the first Wednesday in April.

For Walking Day, employees are encouraged to wear walking shoes and spend at least 30 minutes walking. The event, which last year was led by James May, Mercy Health president and CEO on a mile-long path along Reed Hartman Highway near the company's Blue Ash headquarters, is considered a good way to build awareness of the importance of physical activity and give workers a push toward a healthier life style.

Mercy, which employs some 7,000 people in Greater Cincinnati, has been actively encouraging employees to participate in the Mini Marathon. Before Mercy signed on as title sponsor, about 500 employees or family members participated and raised $51,000. Last year, more than 2,200 employees or family members participated and raised $185,000.

"We're very organized in our approach," says Liska. "It's one of the priorities for us."

Team leaders are established at each of Mercy's hospitals.

"We encourage all our employees and their families to buy T-shirts and support the event," she says.

Mercy also has embraced the Heart Association's 2020 impact goal: Improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent while reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20 percent.

As part of its commitment to better health for its employees, Mercy's wellness program has offered pedometers so employees can keep track of their daily walking activity and earn monetary rewards for achieving certain milestones.

Some 4,200 area employees, more than 60 percent of Mercy's area workforce, participated during the last year. They've logged more than 3.2 billion steps, the equivalent of walking around the world 48 times.