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Health Department

Health Eating and Active Living
by William S. Paul, MD, MPH

Poor diet and lack of exercise kill nearly 400,000 Americans a year.  In Nashville, like most of the country, obesity and diabetes rates are climbing with no end in sight.  This epidemic translates into a host of medical complications and soaring medical costs.  It has been predicted that our children will live shorter lives than we will.  If we make real progress with healthy eating and active living we will save lives.

What works?  Research and experience have shown that short-term programs and campaigns don’t.   Weight loss and fitness initiatives tend to go the way of many New Year’s resolutions.  They work for a few people in the short term, but don’t have lasting impact.

One challenge is that healthy choices are often not straightforward and economical.   If doctors prescribe walking, what are patients to do if walking in their neighborhood is an ordeal?  Everyone is supposed to eat more fruits and vegetables, but they are scarce in many neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.  We require our students to study wellness, so wouldn’t it be great if the food and physical activity we offer in school were healthier and more appealing?

Increasingly, our efforts to promote health are focusing on policies and environmental changes that make healthy choices easier and better weave health into the fabric of the city.  Important local examples include attracting grocery stores to neighborhoods that lack them (the ReStoring Nashville campaign), an effort by Metro Schools and partners to seriously focus on food and wellness in the schools, and evaluation by Metro Government and partners at what it would take for Nashville to pursue a Complete Streets policy where road investments accommodate not only cars, but also bicycles, pedestrians, and buses.

Beyond better health, policies and environmental changes that support active living and healthy eating will make Nashville more livable, more sustainable, more equitable, and more attractive to new companies and families.   Children and youth that eat healthy and get regular exercise learn better.  Many people seek sidewalks, greenways, transit, affordable healthy food, healthy schools, and workplaces that build healthy living into their organizational fabric.

Locally several groups, committees, councils, and coalitions have been working to facilitate change.  Mayor Dean and Vice Mayor Neighbors have begun to tie several of these efforts together in the Livability Project.  This week, with support from the AARP, YMCA’s Pioneering Healthier Communities initiative, the Nashville Healthcare Council, and Metro Health Department, over 150 representatives from government and nonprofit agencies, industry, community, and academia gathered for Nashville  Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Summit.  At the Summit, partners recognized the work that is being done, learned lessons from around the country, looked at recommendations of national and local leaders, and helped define some next steps for significant projects to improve Nashville’s health.

A major theme of the HEAL Summit was convergence: many activities and organizations are networking and contributing to a common vision of a healthier and more livable city.  Working together is vital to our success.  As Mayor Dean said, “Only together can we make Nashville the Healthiest City.”

William S. Paul, MD, MPH
Director of Health
Metro Public Health Department of Nashville/Davidson County