Bugging people about exercise is not necessarily the best way to encourage healthy behaviors among local residents, according to panelists who discussed health rankings for Kansas counties.
More subtle approaches have worked in Allen, Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties, representatives from those communities said Monday at a forum held at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., the home of that city’s Major League Soccer team.
Wyandotte County, for instance, has shifted the emphasis of the Parks and Recreation Department from play to wellness, said Mark Holland, mayor and chief executive of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.
As the Unified Government looked to reduce spending during the economic recession, Holland said, the board of commissioners cut the parks and recreation budget by about 20 percent “in large part because the paradigm of parks and rec was centered around fun and games.”
The focus of providing healthy activities for all ages, Holland said, spurred the commission last year to earmark $6 million in casino proceeds to help build a community center near downtown Kansas City, Kan.
Holland was among the speakers at the forum, organized by the Kansas Health Institute and its partners, to discuss the annual County Health Rankings compiled by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The organizations released this year’s rankings last month. In Kansas, the data continued to show that some of the worst health outcomes were in Wyandotte County and in the southeast corner of the state.
Among the more than 110 attendees at the forum, including more than three dozen listening to a webcast, were representatives from local health departments, hospitals and nonprofit organizations.
Unified Government Public Health Director Joe Connor attended with Holland. Connor has helped spearhead Healthy Communities Wyandotte, a government-led initiative started in 2009 after Wyandotte ranked last in health among the state’s 105 counties.
Also speaking at the forum were: Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton; Julie Willems Van Dijk of the UW population health institute; and David Toland, executive director of Thrive Allen County, a nonprofit aimed at improving the quality of life in the county.
By the numbers
The recent release represents the fifth year of the County Health Rankings. Some counties are too small to have reliable measurements for health outcomes. Definitions and formulas can change from year to year.
Wyandotte’s position has not moved much during the course of the rankings, sitting at No. 96 this year. Sedgwick has moved up seven notches to 69th, and Allen has moved up 13 positions to 79th.
Norton sits on the United Way board, and he said the data has proven helpful in community development discussions.
“So when we are talking about a neighborhood we want to revitalize or a problem that we have in the community,” he said, “then we have some really rich data that can be integrated with what the United Way has put together — and that kind of interjects the health conversation into those decisions.”
Simply providing a safe place to walk has proven to be an effective strategy in Allen County, Toland said. Local officials have added 18 miles of new trails within the past five years, he said.
“People don’t (use the trails) for health reasons necessarily,” Toland said, “maybe some do, but they are doing it because it feels good, because they like it.”
Experts on the data cautioned that community efforts prompted by the health rankings could take years to bear fruit in terms of improved of improved rankings.
And, Toland said, some of Allen County’s move up in the rankings is likely partially attributable to the fact that some surrounding counties are getting worse.
Nevertheless, he said, the improved ranking in Allen County is something that Thrive Allen County notes to prospective businesses looking to locate in that area.
Residents are also taking note of the improved ranking, he said. “People are starting to see this as a source of pride.”
With Healthy Communities Wyandotte, Connor said participants don’t dwell on a health ranking that continues to be near the bottom. He said organizers focus on the steps they are taking, such as developing a sidewalk plan.
Van Dijk said Kansas communities are using the health rankings exactly as envisioned by the authors.
“It is really all about taking action,” she said.
Unlike in other states, Van Dijk said, Kansas has a strong partnership between hospitals and the public health system. She also noted the deep community roots highlighted by some of Monday’s speakers, who said their families go back generations in their counties.
“I think you have a lot of great momentum here in Kansas,” she said.