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It Pays to Think Big

How Small Communities
Can Promote Wellness

Brian Wilton
By Brian Wilton
Committee Member
Lake Como
people jogging
While it can seem overwhelming for a small town to launch a health-promotion program, don’t be discouraged. By hosting a single event that gets your residents involved, you can have a positive impact.

Several years ago, in an effort to win the battle against my expanding waistline, I took up running and entered my first 5k race. Prior to this, I never ran for more than a few minutes at a time, especially not in a competitive setting. Nevertheless, I finished the run and continued to train and enrolled in several more races. Now several years later and almost 25 pounds lighter, I have completed in countless races and triathlons, including my first marathon this past fall. Due to my first hand experience of the positive effects of an active lifestyle, I was recently asked by our mayor to serve as the liaison to the Mayor’s Wellness Campaign for our borough.

The Mayor’s Wellness Campaign, an initiative of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute and the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, seeks to help municipal officials create programs that address obesity and improve the health of their residents.

As I undertook my new duties, I was surprised to learn some facts regarding the health of our communities. According to a March 2012 Gallup poll, approximately 26.1 percent of American adults were considered obese in 2011. Obesity rates were over 15 percent in most of the cities that were surveyed. Not surprisingly, adults living in those areas are more likely to be diagnosed with chronic illness such as diabetes and high blood pressure. As a result, the additional healthcare costs of the cities surveyed in the poll approach 80 billion dollars. Further, based on information provided by the Mayor’s Wellness Campaign, 57 percent of New Jersey residents are considered obese or overweight. In 2001, the medical expenses for treating obesity related conditions in New Jersey alone were 2.3 billion.

In order to meet its goals, the Mayor’s Wellness Campaign promotes events such as walking tours, healthy cook-offs, weight loss competitions and free health screenings.

Many of the larger cities and towns have full departments and websites devoted to their Mayor’s Wellness initiatives. However, that does not mean that smaller communities cannot do just as much as their larger counterparts, for little to no cost. By being creative and taking advantage of technology, the smaller towns can certainly get their residents involved.

When developing Lake Como’s wellness initiative I was unsure how to proceed, since as a small town we didn’t have a lot to offer. The borough is a “donut hole” town, surrounded entirely by larger communities. We have a population of about 1,800 and do not have our own schools. We also do not have our own recreation department or beach as many of the other shore towns do. While our governing body passed a resolution joining the Mayor’s Wellness Campaign, we never had any official events to promote its goals. As a triathlete and runner myself, I wanted to implement programs that would promote healthy living and exercise for our residents. When I ultimately sat down to get started, I realized that due to our small size and limited resources, it was going to be difficult.

However, upon closer inspection I realized that we did have events in town already that promoted these goals, such as multiple 5k runs and even an annual triathlon. There was no need to start from scratch to activate our wellness plan. It became a matter of simply making our residents more aware of what already existed.

The first step I took was to announce every upcoming 5k run at council meetings. As a result, the newspaper generally would write about it and make a note of it in their community calendar. Recently, we started a borough Facebook page, so I also posted the events there as well. In addition, I made it a point to participate in many of the races myself. I also began to ask the members of the council to join me in either walking or running in these races.

The effect was contagious and members of the governing body began to participate. Most recently, in December of 2011, almost the entire governing body, along with members of the borough administrative staff and town residents participated on a team I created in the Jingle Bell Run for Arthritis Awareness. The run is a fundraising event sponsored by the Arthritis Foundation of New Jersey and takes place every December in Lake Como. Prior to the race, I took advantage of the foundation’s web site to create a team to participate in the run and walk.

Having the team gave us the opportunity to raise money online for the charity. Thus, as an added benefit to promoting the healthy living goals of our Mayor’s Wellness Campaign, we also ended up raising several thousand dollars for arthritis research.

Once the wellness ball was rolling, other programs began to evolve. I began meeting with the staff of the Mayor’s Wellness Campaign to start some new events. Their staff suggested ideas and helped us find sponsors for our events. As a result, on June 2, 2012, in conjunction with the Horizon Blue Cross Care-A-Van, we will host our first Hometown Health Fair. With little to no cost we were able to create the fair which will feature health care screenings, informational booths set up by local wellness practitioners and health and fitness guest speakers. As the event will feature many of our local health related businesses, the wellness day will also help promote tourism for the borough.

While it can seem overwhelming for a small town to launch a health-promotion program, don’t be discouraged. By hosting a single event that gets your residents involved, you can have a positive impact. Think Big, But Start Small! Soon you will have an effective program you can be proud of.

Wellness Advice for Small Municipalities

  • Lead by example. Begin a health or weight loss program of your own and tweet your progress and or post on your town’s Facebook page. Allow residents to Tweet their progress back to you.
  • If you or other municipal leaders already exercise, take the time to invite residents (via Twitter of an e-mail) to join you.
  • Don’t overlook programs and events that already take place in your community. For instance, if your municipality has a 5k run or walk, make sure you announce it at your council meetings and post it on the town website.
  • Invite a speaker to a town meeting to discuss a health related topic. Create an event page on Facebook to spread the word and track your attendees.
  • Start a weight loss challenge for municipal employees and residents. Having a support group makes weight loss easier by providing motivation and accountability. Many online sites such as www.weightlosswars.com offer platforms to set up weight loss competitions in public or private groups.

 

Originally published in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 6, June 2012

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