Building a healthy, active community

by Melanie Davis
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People with bikesLillian Shirley, RN, MPH, MPA Multnomah County Health Department Director Most of us know that eating well and exercising frequently is good for our health. Yet, many of us are not eating nearly enough healthy food or getting enough physical activity. It is recommended that most adults eat two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables every day but research shows only about 25 percent of adults in Oregon eat even half this amount, the rest of eat even less. Why does it seem so difficult to eat healthy food? There are many barriers affecting our ability to eat well and take care of ourselves and our families. We are eating out much more than we used to, and over the last 30 years meal sizes, also referred to as portion sizes, have increased for foods prepared outside the home. We are also less active, spending more time watching television and spending time on the computer. In the United States, people rely on cars rather than active forms of transportation, such as walking, bicycling, or taking public transportation. We are snacking more frequently and drinking more sugary drinks. The variety of unhealthy snack foods such as chips, cookies, and candies has increased dramatically in recent years. We also know that in Oregon, nearly a gallon of sugar-sweetened beverage, like soda pop and sports drinks, is consumed for every man, woman, and child per week. More snacks and more sugary drinks mean extra calories. Changing individual behavior is difficult, particularly when the environments and policies in which people make decisions do not support healthful behavior choices. Nationally, 1 in every 3 adults is obese, and almost 1 in 5 youth between the ages of 6 and 19 is obese. In Oregon, about 63 percent of the Latino community is overweight or obese with less than one third of the Latino population meeting current physical activity guidelines. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation noted that “currently, 38.2 percent of Hispanic children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese, compared with 31.7 percent of all children those ages.†According to the 2004-05 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), Multnomah County residents who identify as Native Americans/Alaskan Natives or Hispanics had the highest proportions of overweight and obesity. Public health efforts at the national, state, county, and city levels are beginning to focus on changing our living environments to support healthful behavior choices, examples of this work include promoting safe walking and biking and encouraging healthy foods at grocery and corner stores. Multnomah County is a part of a national obesity prevention strategy called Communities Putting Prevention to Work. As a part of this effort, over 25 community partners, including school districts, nonprofit organizations, and local governments are funded to help advance cutting edge strategies to promote healthy eating and physical activity. One of these organizations, El Programa Hispano, is working on obesity prevention goals that include collaborating with government agencies so that the city planning policies take into account health considerations and giving everyone a chance to live a healthy life. “There are numerous factors that make obesity a complex health issue to address; social, economic, and the built environment,†said Héctor Osuna, the Healthy Eating Active Living Coordinator at El Programa Hispano. The work at El Program Hispano focuses on working with local governments to increase opportunities for safe physical activity and access to affordable healthy stores for Latino community members to help prevent obesity. Our opportunities to better health begin where we live, learn, work, and play and all of us have a role in helping to create a healthy community. Learn more about what you can do at


Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Health Department Community members participate in outdoor activities as part of the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) work.