How to build a healthy community

How to build a healthy community

June 25th, 2015

May 14, 2015

Dick Hagen, TBC Board member and writer for The Land Magazine

How to build a healthy community:   “Kids want to do just as much today as we did when we were kids. But because of changes in life styles of parents, kids just don’t have the opportunities. It has gotten so bad in America that one of three kids born today is likely to have Type 2 diabetes.  That alarming statement was from Mark Fenton, a noted national speaker on ‘Rebuilding Healthy Communities across America. During a 2-day Active Living Days event, May 12 and 13, in Bird Island and Olivia, he led talk sessions with a cadre of community leaders from both towns who are aggressively seeking ideas and strategies on how to cooperatively make their communities ‘healthful’ for all, especially the millennia’s (ages l9 to 39)and younger kids.  Fenton also shared this shocking statistic: “The life span of kids today is projected to decrease by two years within the next generation.” In plain facts that’s telling us kids of today’s young parent will be dying at a younger age than their parents!

Yet isn’t modern medicine doing just the opposite? Don’t we have longer living geriatrics than ever before?  “Yes, when you just look at the older population, life extension is happening,” said Fenton. “But because of obesity, poor nutrition, and especially lack of physical exertion, young kids are actually back peddling on life expectancy. Because of the number of kids that will be afflicted by chronic diseases that effect everything from cardiovascular disease to Type 2 diabetes, life span for today’s kids is decreasing. In fact we’re now finding out the sedentary life of these kids also makes them at higher risk for cancer, dementia and clinical depression.”  A major objective of Fenton when he meets with community leaders is developing ‘Safe Routes to School’ programs. “We’re trying to get more kids involved in walking or biking to school, rather than busing or being transported by Mom or Dad. Inevitably the kids tell us ‘we love it’. It’s unconstrained. It’s a bit of what we call Free Range living. Walking to and from school with some of my buddies was the best part of my day when I was a kid. When this happens with kids today we see them reengaging socially and with their environment. Kids want to do that ….if we let them!”
His point being that if kids plop down in front of the TV screen after school and television becomes the baby sitter, we’re creating health and often even mental challenges for these kids for the rest of their lives.

How ‘unhealthy’ is America today? To the point he responded, “Sadly very unhealthy. We know that every American adult should get at least 30 minutes of physical activity daily, and kids should get at least an hour. It can be vigorous activity like running or swimming or a team sport. But incidental activity like walking to school, walking to the store, gardening or hopping on your bike counts towards this daily total.   “We know only about 10% of adults actually meet this recommendation. Maybe as few as 20% of the kids. It’s shockingly low. Our jobs are sedentary, our school day is sedentary, our transportation is sedentary. We’re just not willing to walk or ride a bike for errands or even to get to school. We’ve built a sedentary life style. We’re already paying a high price. And it’s only going to get worse….the alarming Type 2 diabetes incidence in kids tells the story.”  Are the same ‘deficiencies’ in life style showing up in rural Minnesota or just in larger population areas? “Unfortunately yes,” said Fenton. In fact he indicated childhood obesity rates are as high or higher in rural areas. “We used to think kids in rural areas had much more outdoor life, more activity, more work on farms and homes. The streets are safer so they can be outdoors playing with fewer concerns about traffic and other fear hazards. But fear has permeated the country. And now the reality is that these kids are more likely to end up with cardiovascular disease or diabetes than be abducted.”

So did Fenton see opportunities in these two rural Minnesota communities where ‘health’ could be easily remedied?   “The good news is that towns like these have good ‘raw bones’. Each has a network of streets, sidewalks and a traditional downtown. Plus they have churches and schools, parks and businesses which are all part of this same community structure. In a suburban community all these services are now clustered in a mall. Their main street is dead. Here your main streets still have life.  “I think the most important thing these two communities can do is energize that life. Keep your main street the life blood of your community. And you can do simple things to your roadways to make them safer for walking and biking…simple things like paint striping bicycle lanes, and ‘bump outs’ at street intersections to shorten the crossways.  “I also think your two communities should implement ‘Reverse Diagonal Parking’, a simple change where you back your auto into a parking slot rather than drive in. It’s safer. Your vehicle doors open to the side walk rather than the street. And when you leave, you drive out rather than back out. Sure, it would take a bit to get used to this change…but major towns like Des Moines, Iowa already have Reverse Parking. The key thing: get both towns to start together. That’s a teamwork process that simply makes it quicker and easier for all to accept and implement! I would love these two communities to become pioneers in the state of Minnesota.”

Fenton’s thoughts on the proposed bikeway/walkway connecting the two communities of Bird Island and Olivia? “I think it’s brilliant. You’re already seeing development in both towns that make this corridor even more inviting. The new hospital on the east side of Olivia; the baseball complex on the west side of Bird Island that has heavy traffic. The two towns are sort of already moving towards each other so an accommodating pedestrian and biking corridor is very logical.”
Fenton, age 54, resides in a ‘small town’ Massachusetts hamlet but grew up in Brockport, New York just outside of Rochester. Farm country with lots of dairying and apple orchards he said. He was a ‘track and field’ guy in high school mostly doing distance running but on a whim he tried ‘race walking’. He chuckled, “Tragically I was good at it. So my coach told me to get serious about being a race walker. I got into some national level competitions. In these ‘lesser sports’ one thing quickly leads to another so for the next decade or so I was rather serious about being a competitive race walker. I didn’t make the Olympics though I tried in both 1984 and 1988. But I made the Pan American Championships and a few International competitions in Europe. It was fun. It brought me into international travel and it established me as ‘expert’ on walking….if you can walk a 7 minute mile you get that tag it seems.”  But he’s now enthused about working with communities to encourage ‘collective’ thinking and discussing ideas for the greater good. “I’m finding that in ‘small town’ America people to tend to think more about the community than just themselves. Tragically, overweight parents don’t even recognize obesity in their own kids. It’s a sad reality but many now think that fat is normal. We have to get people to change their perception; to understand what’s ahead if they don’t change; and to cooperatively initiate the right kind of changes to benefit virtually everyone.” The healthiest state in America? Fenton said national data indicates its Colorado, perhaps in part because of an exceptional health subsection of the population out there…mountain bikers, skiers, climbers and runners. But Minnesota is also a high ranking state, nursed along because of policy decisions for trails statewide, bike ways throughout the state, the Light Rail transit system which has taken lots of people out of their cars and of course an incredible network of biking through the entire Twin Cities area.

He’s a totally independent entrepreneur however the Center for Disease Control sponsors a good deal of his work and travel; also local Health agencies cooperate in events such as this 2-day Active Living Days event in Bird Island and Olivia. For more info go:

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