The Healthiest State in the Nation

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By Lori Williams

Washington State invests a lot in encouraging fitness. In this year's Healthiest State in the Nation campaign, the Washington Health Foundation (WHF) is using a series of repurposed Colbert Report videos casting Mr. Colbert as a campaign leader to inspire and amuse participants statewide to run, walk, bike, kayak and otherwise locomote for 25 million miles.

The annual Healthiest State campaign is a year-long effort that engages citizens to keep track of physical activity to support Washington’s climb to the top of State health rankings. Washington State is currently ranked ninth in physical activity, with about 55 percent of adults reporting regular physical activity, although the percentage varies by income and across racial groups.

The goal of the Healthiest State campaign is to inspire Washingtonians to log 25 million miles. How many miles is 25 million miles? It’s the equivalent of 83,000+ Washingtonians being active for 30 minutes, 3 times a week, 50 weeks of the year. (Assuming a half hour of moderate physical activity, or twenty minutes of vigorous activity equate to two miles.) If all 5.9 million Washingtonians met that standard, they would log 1.8 billion miles.

So far in 2008, 36,000 individuals, 1200 organizations and 400 schools have logged more than 12 million miles' worth of physical activity through WHF’s campaign. To spur Washingtonians along, the WHF splits the annual goal of 25 million miles into smaller targets for shorter challenge periods, such as the Governor’s Health Bowl, (September 18 through November 1). WHF’s online tracking tool lets participants track progress toward their goals and offers prize drawings as an incentive. Individuals can attribute their miles to groups, organizations or schools, all of which compete with each other for bragging rights throughout the challenge period. New to the Bowl this year is the Healthiest Business Challenge, developed to spark competition among businesses.

In terms of the broadness of its appeal, the Healthiest State campaign has reached children in schools and adults in business, government and the nonprofit sector. They have at least some material in Spanish and Joe Furia, communications specialist, at WHF reports that Rainier Health and Fitness, a gym that serves an economically underdeveloped area of Seattle, is using WHF’s tracking tool as part of its Community Fitness Challenge.

The Healthiest State campaign is innovative in its playful use of social marketing to encourage physical activity through friendly competition. WHF has also created an adaptable health tracking tool that groups can use measure progress within their own programs. This campaign addresses the personal responsibility aspect of making Washington the Healthiest State in the Nation. But the very need for an incentive like this to incite people to make time to be active is a sign that we are missing opportunities to integrate healthy habits into daily life. As WHF recognizes in its policy priorities, the path to a truly healthy Washington state will require opportunities for physical activity for people of all incomes and all races in all communities. And truly sustainable community health will mean health that is built into our public spaces, modes of transportation, public policies and daily routines.

Neighborhood redesigns that make walking and bicycling safe and attractive transportation options, physical education programs in schools and incentive programs for employers. For that, we’ll need more than Stephen Colbert.

Lori Williams is a community organizer for active living and sustainability in the Seattle area. She holds an MPH and PhD in Epidemiology and can usually be found riding her bike.

Photo credit: flickr/binarymillenium, Creative Commons license.

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