Comprehensive effort needed for better health

Getting people out of their single-occupancy vehicles and into active lifestyles requires institutional and behavioral changes, but community leaders deserve credit for tackling this important goal.

Steps for a Healthier Washington and Thurston County is a half-million-dollar-a-year program that is paid for with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control passed along through the state Department of Health. Funding for the five-year grant is expected to expire next year, but many of the changes already have been put into place locally.

We see the effect of the county Health Department program playing out in multiple arenas. South Sound schools, for example, are focusing on "calories in and calories out." They are swapping out junk food vending machines, adding salads to the lunch menu, offering a variety of physical education opportunities for kids and installing more bicycle racks to encourage students to bike to and from school.

City and county planners are adopting development standards that call for more sidewalks and bicycle lanes, additional open space and parks. Elected officials are creating more trails. They are setting aside funds to fill in sections of missing sidewalks and are conscious of building schools and retail outlets in close proximity to major housing developments.

The urban village design, for example, calls for a mix of residential and commercial development, with the idea being that people can work and shop closer to home. They can walk to the grocery store, to the dry cleaners, to the elementary school and fitness club.

The goal is to create healthy communities by design, according to Chris Hawkins, program manager for the steps program. Thurston is one of five counties in the state selected for the five-year grant.

The aim, Hawkins said, is to encourage adults and children to make healthier food and nutrition choices and to live more active lives. "We want to make it an easier choice to move your body every day," Hawkins said. "We want to make it an expected behavior to get a daily walk in."

He said the recommended amount of exercise is 30 minutes of walking a day. "Some 54 percent of all Thurston County adults don't engage in the recommended amount of physical activity," Hawkins said.

Steps is a comprehensive, community driven, prevention-based approach centered on physical activity, good nutrition and less tobacco use. What better time to instill those positive values and lifestyle choices than among students. Schools are key, and most South Sound districts have embraced the healthy communities by design concept, Hawkins said.

Lon Wyrick, executive director of the Thurston Regional Planning Council, is right when he says any plan to promote healthy designs should not stop at city borders. "We need consistency and standards," Wyrick said. "If one planning commission goes forward, it needs to be consistent with the others."

That's one area that's still lacking. A health impact assessment should be part of the checklist for every new development in South Sound. Land use changes should be weighed as to whether they contribute to an active and healthy community.