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Public Policy and Community Action as Key Drivers for Improved Health

Posted Feb 11 2010 12:00am

I have come to the unwelcome conclusion, for me, that the majority of Americans will not spontaneously turn to a healthier lifestyle merely to prolong their own lives and reduce health costs in the process. For many, it's also necessary to create a local environment and set of resources more conducive to healthy behaviors such as taking daily walks and eating better. Here is where public policy comes into play. It was therefore with some interest that I read about what is going on in Albert Lea, Minnesota (see: The Minnesota Miracle). Here's an excerpt from the article:

Amid a pep-rally-like atmosphere in a high-school auditorium [in May, 2009], the 18,000-resident community [of Albert Lea, Minnesota] kicked off the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project, sponsored by the United Health Foundation.....[Nine] basic behaviors lie at the heart of improved health and longevity, something [author Dan Buettner] learned from traveling to areas [called] Blue Zones : unique regions where people have the world's longest life spans. [They are the following:}
  • Keep Moving: Find ways to move naturally, such as walking, gardening, using fewer labor-saving devices.
  • Find Purpose: And pursue it with passion.
  • Slow Down: Work less, rest, take vacations.
  • Stop Eating: When you're 80 percent full.
  • Dine on Plants: Eat more veggies, and less meat and processed foods.
  • Drink Red Wine: Do it consistently but in moderation.
  • Join a group: Create a healthy social network.
  • Feed your soul: Engage in spiritual activities.
  • Love your tribe: Make family a high priority
With buy-in from the town's leadership, the transformation [of Albert Lea] was remarkable. [A] transportation expert] created plans to persuade residents to leave their cars at home. This included building a sidewalk loop around [a local lake].  A Nutrition and food-psychology expert ....went into Albert Lea's homes and restaurants to explain some simple tricks for healthier eating, such as using ten-inch plates and putting junk food on hard-to-reach shelves. [A] dietary expert worked with grocery stores to label "longevity foods," and with schools to change their menus—and the eating habits of students....Two-thirds of locally owned restaurants added life-extending foods to their menus, from berries to broccoli, and 35 businesses pledged to make their workplaces healthier by offering more nutritious catering menus and vending machine choices, and substituting fruit for doughnuts. Residents participated in 15 Vitality Project initiatives,....from walking groups—including "walking school buses," where parents and grandparents stroll with children to school—to healthy cooking classes.

There's nothing magic about any of these community initiatives. The difference for the town of Albert Lea has been that Author Buettner and the Blue Zones Vitality Project served as a catalyst for community action. This raised the level of public awareness about steps to healthy living. One word of caution, however, about the lessons that can be taken away from this small town in Minnesota. If you want a community-wide health initiative to succeed, just head for this same state. Cerner learned this lesson well when the company established its health-data-driven collaborative project in Winona, Minnesota (see: The Winona Project: Is This a RHIO Success Story?). Minnesota, along with other states like Utah, are already far in the lead in term of favorable health statistics. It's a state with a long history of collaborative community behaviors inherited from Scandinavian farmer immigrants who depended on community action for survival when they arrived in this country.

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