Ironically, the busier we get, the more sedentary we become. Sure, there are exceptions. But too many of us are strapped to our desks, to our computers, to our car seats, to our video games, to whatever.
Unfortunately, inactivity can lead to obesity and a host of co-morbidities, including heart disease and diabetes. In fact, the risk of getting a cardiovascular disease is believed to increase by 1.5 times in people who do not follow minimum physical activity recommendations.
It’s a problem that is being addressed by multiple U.S. government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Office of the Surgeon General.
And it’s also a problem being addressed by proactive hospitals around the country.
Yes, bariatric surgery programs are rising in popularity. For the morbidly obese, that is, those who are more than 100 pounds overweight, surgery might be the only option. But for others, lifestyle changes may be in order. And integrated delivery networks (IDNs) can play a role in encouraging those lifestyle changes.
A look at some of the programs described in VHA’s “Obesity, Nutrition and Exercise Program Exchange” provides plenty of examples of the kind of work being done.
For example, “Kids in Motion” by WakeMed, Raleigh, N.C., provides overweight, inactive and/or diabetic children with the opportunity to exercise in a fun and non-competitive environment.
In the publication, program coordinator Laura Aiken writes, “Many of the children in the program suffer from low self-esteem. When they enter the program, they are not confident in their abilities and tend to be very apprehensive about participating. There is not one child who has participated in this program who has not overcome this within three weeks. The children are supportive of each other and instantly feel comfortable with moving their bodies. This is something that does not always happen in a physical education class at school.”
By no means do community health programs such as these always end with positive results. Let’s face it: Obesity’s root causes are deep. As Pam Bueckner of VHA Georgia writes in the VHA publication, health and physical education programs are being axed from public school curricula, the lack of sidewalks in subdivisions makes it difficult for kids to walk to school, and the competitiveness of school athletic programs discourage average kids from participating. The family dinner has all but disappeared, causing kids and adults to turn to fast food, frozen dinners and snacks. These are societal problems, far broader than what healthcare organizations can control.
And IDNs face difficulties in pulling off community health programs. How do you keep people in the community coming back, given the competing demands of school, work and entertainment? How do you encourage people to keep up a healthy lifestyle after the conclusion of a 10- or 12-week education and physical activity program? How do you fund these programs and train people to run them?
Despite all the difficulties, however, the effort seems to be well worth it. The World Health Organization says regular physical activity provides people with a wide range of physical, social and mental health benefits. Physical activity interacts positively with strategies to improve diet and discourage the use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs; helps reduce violence; enhances functional capacity; and promotes social interaction and integration, says WHO.
Phil Barbee (writing in the VHA Obesity Exchange) of Moses Cone-Wesley Long Community Health Foundation puts it more simply, but eloquently, “Helping children be active and overcome sedentary lifestyle habits is a life gift to the community and to the future health of our nation.”
A pretty good gift at that.