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Area wins in battle to help kids stay fit

Published in Child Advocacy Services, For the Health of It Author: David Tilstra, MD, CPE

Investing in the Statewide Health Improvement Program and BLEND gives doctors the policy and community support we need to keep people healthier and helps patients with costly illnesses live better

The Minnesota Department of Health recently shared a report that showed our obesity rates have held steady while rates in all neighboring states have continued to climb. This latest, convincing evidence shows making smart investments in things like bike lanes in all cities and fresh vegetables in all lunchrooms isn’t just nice. It’s essential to keeping everyone healthier.

The numbers don’t lie. Minnesota’s investment in making healthy choices easier in communities is paying off, which is why it’s important the Legislature continues to support this investment.

In the St. Cloud area, we have had even greater impact among our kids. According to CentraCare Clinic records:

  • The obesity rate has dropped by 14 percent among 12-year-olds between 2008 and 2014.
  • Among 12-year-old boys, during the same time frame, we’ve seen a 28 percent drop in overweight and obesity rates.

What’s more, the overweight and obesity rates among kids entering kindergarten has held constant the past eight years. These kids are not gaining weight during the elementary school years, leading to the decline in obesity among 12-year-olds.

How did we do it? Simple: We focused on making healthy choices the easy choices for kids.

We created a coalition known as BLEND (Better Living: Exercise & Nutrition Daily), made up of doctors, business leaders, parents, local public health, cities and school districts, to work within our community to establish local and statewide public policies that promote health.

Through BLEND, we’ve added safe routes for kids to walk and bike to and from school, given nutrition scores to foods at the grocery store, ensured healthier meals and snacks are served at schools and encouraged school walk-a-thons rather than cookie or pizza fundraisers. BLEND walk-a-thons raise money for schools, get kids active during the school day and keep junk food out of refrigerators and off dinner tables.

Each of these changes, from crosswalks to walk-a-thons, is great on its own, but together they add up to a big drop in childhood obesity that no clinic or program could sustainably achieve on its own. CentraCare’s clinic data has shown, and the state’s recent study affirms, that coordinating good policy and supportive communities helps everyone live healthier lives.

The benefits of making healthy choices easier in people’s daily lives go beyond prevention, too. Small, common sense solutions can bend the health care cost-curve for everyone.

Consider someone managing Type 2 diabetes, a disease that often strikes patients who have been overweight or obese for some time, through good nutrition and an active lifestyle. Each year we spend an average of $8,000 to treat diabetes, yet we rarely look at how we’re setting our diabetic patients up for success in their daily lives.

For example, if the only snacks available at work are candy bars and high-carb snacks from a vending machine, wouldn’t a fruit bowl at the office be money better spent than anything a doctor could prescribe? These types of changes — supported by the Department of Health, BLEND and others — help influence the types of choices people make every day.

The data is clear: Good policies and supportive community initiatives are turning the tide on obesity. Investing in programs like the Statewide Health Improvement Program and BLEND gives doctors the policy and community support we need to keep people healthier and helps patients with costly illnesses live better.

Minnesota has been at the forefront of making healthy choices easier, and we’re seeing the benefits. Now, as the effects of obesity compound the health care system, we need the Legislature to keep funding this community-based work. We need to keep the momentum going. Don’t turn away from proven, cost-effective strategies when the need for healthy communities is greater than ever.

This post appeared as an opinion piece in the St. Cloud Times – May 5, 2015