Opinion

It takes a town to be healthy | Gustafson

It takes a town to be healthy | Gustafson

How healthy you are, or can hope to be, depends on multiple factors, including where you live.

For example, if you call Minneapolis-St. Paul home, you breath cleaner air and will find it easier to exercise outdoors than in most other American metropolitan areas because there are more walk- and bike paths than almost anywhere else. Washington D.C. has the highest number of swimming pools, tennis courts, and recreational centers in the nation, and health care providers are abundant here. Denver has the lowest obesity rate among big cities and the highest percentage of residents who are in excellent or very good health.

Of course, metropolises offer plenty of opportunities to stay healthy and fit smaller communities just can’t afford. But that doesn’t mean that small town residents are doomed.

Any place, the smaller, the better, can become a model in health-promoting living, according to Esther Dyson, a healthcare technology investor and founder of the Health Initiative Coordinating Council (HICCup), a nonprofit organization that sponsors health and lifestyle initiatives in communities all over the country.

So far, her organization has chosen five towns for a five-year trial run named “Way to Wellville,” a program to raise greater awareness of health risks such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer – all mostly lifestyle-related ills that could be avoided.

While HICCup will cover initial administrative costs, the selected towns will be responsible for running the program independently.

“First, we want places that can succeed. The Wellville Challenge is not a random selection but a search for places that can make the most of the help HICCup can provide and the connections we can help them to establish,” says Dyson. “But in the end, the communities themselves will be doing the heavy lifting.”

As investors, HICCup and its partners will support Wellville communities in much the same way startup investors support promising business ideas. “In this case, the community is the startup – and the community’s product is health,” says HICCup CEO Rick Brush.

Obviously, the actions of a handful of hamlets won’t have much of an impact on big issues like the ever-worsening obesity crisis. But Dyson hopes that they will establish a model for other small and mid-size communities elsewhere.

“The programs by and large won’t be remarkable,” she concedes. “What’s remarkable is doing them together, reinforcing one another in small, self-contained communities where they will have maximum impact.”

The ultimate challenge these localized initiatives will have to grapple with is how to address the concrete health problems that are most pervasive in the country. Poor diet and lifestyle choices are certainly at the forefront and must be addressed through education and other preventive measures. But so must poverty and limited access to healthcare. Even when more people have access to insurance coverage, doctors and hospitals must make greater efforts to keep people from getting sick, not just treat their ailments. Civic and business leaders can provide incentives and infrastructure, but they cannot make everyone take advantage of them.

Still, the idea of enlisting entire communities in the fight against debilitating diseases that occur unnecessarily and are perfectly preventable is laudable, even if it takes one small patch at a time.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

 

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