By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe staff photographer
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
Mark Fenton believes that handing out water bottles and T-shirts at events designed to encourage health and wellness isn’t enough, and that health must be built into a community, beginning with planning and design.
Dubbed “America’s walking guru,” Fenton is the former editor at large of Walking magazine and the former host of the PBS television series “America’s Walking.”
He came to Crawford County last week to conduct a health audit of Pittsburg and Girard.
Fenton said short-term events aimed at inspiring residents to exercise are not going far enough. Statistics show the use of home treadmills and participation in workout classes typically are short-lived for the majority of people, dropping as time goes on, he said.
“Six months after an intervention or an event, participation in healthy habits drops off. We’ve got to ask about how to make it stick,” Fenton said at one of his several public presentations last week.
“Only one in five American adults get the recommended daily amount of physical activity. Inspiring them to join health clubs, helping them to find time to do so or offering incentives to stay with it isn’t the answer. Improving a community’s design is.
“My job is to tell you how to not end up having the next generation have a shorter life expectancy than you, which is precisely their destiny.”
By the numbers
Last year, Crawford County ranked 88th in the state for overall health, according to a survey done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Today, the average adult obesity rate in Kansas is at 29 percent — 4 percentage points higher than the national average.
Kansas also is one of only seven states to have doubled their obesity rates in just 15 years, and it is the state with the fourth fastest growing obesity rate, after Oklahoma, Alabama and Tennessee.
Similar studies show many Southwest Missouri counties also rank in the bottom half of their state indexes.
Nationally, Fenton said, the numbers also are grim: Annually, 365,000 deaths in the U.S. are directly attributed to physical inactivity and poor nutrition.
Live Well Crawford County, a grass-roots organization that was launched a few years ago to create awareness and bring about change, received $25,000 last year from the Kansas Health Foundation’s Healthy Communities Initiative for planning purposes. For the past year, the group has gathered input from numerous segments of the community via town hall meetings and surveys. It also used part of its funding to bring Fenton to Crawford County.
“We wanted to get his observations as to what was working, what wasn’t, and for him to get people up and excited and ready to make some changes,” said Kristin Thomas, co-chairwoman of Live Well and an employee at the Crawford County Health Department.
Several Pittsburg city department heads and Live Well committee members accompanied Fenton last week to a city-owned block at 17th and Locust streets, where homes will be built this year on the site of the former Lincoln School.
The group quickly noted that there are no pedestrian or bike routes connecting the neighborhood with nearby Lincoln Park, the YMCA or the Family Resource Center.
The group also observed school drop-off and pickup times in Girard and Pittsburg, where parents in cars line up and wait as long as a half-hour.
“If you want to lower the health care costs in America, get every adult to do 30 minutes of exercise a day and every kid 60,” Fenton said. “That could be as simple as making it easier for people to walk to work and kids to walk to school. Or putting in a bike lane so they can get from here to there.
“Spending money on sidewalks so children can walk to school means districts can save huge dollars on busing. Having access to hiking and biking trails, which are connector routes between schools, stores, neighborhoods and parks, keeps young families from moving away and could even attract families to the area, which in turn improves the business climate.”
Fenton also surveyed the downtown, several blocks of residential and school areas in central Pittsburg, and the south end of the city near Pittsburg State University.
He said improving the area’s health would require changes in mindset, policies and budgets at the city and county level, as well as with school boards and corporations.
That means, for example, considering converting a four-lane road to a three-lane road, with a designated turn lane in the middle, a highly visible pedestrian crosswalk and bike lanes on each side. Another example would be ordinances requiring that new subdivisions have alleys and rear garage access, sidewalks in front of homes and shared public green space.
“Improving the county’s health should be something leaders in every facet should be on board about, as it has far-reaching economic impacts,” Fenton said. “That includes reducing health care costs, attracting new businesses, and making retail and social areas more easily accessible to a range of income levels and ages, including those who do not own their own vehicles.”
Fenton cited other Midwestern communities, such as Des Moines, Iowa; Columbia, Mo.; and Hutchinson, Kan., that have employed several strategies he suggested.
He said a study by the National Association of Realtors found that communities whose housing markets held up well during the recent economic downturn were those that had connective routes linking neighborhoods, parks, schools and recreation areas.
Fenton said young professionals across the nation want to raise their children in small cities such as Pittsburg, but they also want their children to walk to school, want sidewalks that lead to parks and other recreational opportunities, and want vibrant downtowns in which they can spend time.
“I wanted to shout ‘amen’ during the whole thing,” City Commissioner Marty Beezley said after Fenton’s presentation.
Commissioner Michael Gray noted that “a few people in town are opposed to it,” but “I appreciate that you were able to take it back and relate it to economic development and quality of life.
“Job creation isn’t done in a vacuum. These kinds of things matter. If people don’t think these things matter, they need to talk to more businesses.”
Commissioner Patrick O’Bryan said he made a mistake before the passage two years ago of the street improvement sales tax in not going along with Beezley’s recommendation to add to the plan sidewalks and other pedestrian and cycling amenities.
“I think it was an error on my part,” he said. “People who don’t think this is essential to economic development obviously haven’t sat in on interviews we have hosted with companies that are looking to locate in our town.”
Fenton also made a presentation at a Girard City Council meeting, took a walking tour of Girard beginning at the elementary school and visited the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center at Greenbush.
“We’ve been informed now, so if we don’t do something about it, we’re all guilty,” Beezley said.
Joanna Rhodes, a Live Well Crawford County co-chairwoman, said the group will soon seek community partners for matching funds before submitting a $25,000 grant request to the Kansas Health Foundation to continue its efforts to make lifestyle improvements that benefit residents’ health.
“We also will be working with the city of Pittsburg and the city of Girard on simple things we can do; some things are really just paint and signs,” she said. “Better markings along the Watco Trail, for example, and crosswalks for pedestrians.”
FOR ADULTS, obesity is determined by using weight and height to calculate a number called the body mass index, or BMI. An adult who has a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight; an adult who has a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.
AREA OBESITY RATES are as follows.
• VERNON COUNTY: 34 percent.
• BARTON COUNTY: 33 percent.
• JASPER COUNTY: 33 percent.
• NEWTON COUNTY: 33 percent.
• McDONALD COUNTY: 32 percent.
• BARRY COUNTY: 30 percent.
• LAWRENCE COUNTY: 30 percent.
• CHEROKEE COUNTY: 36 percent.
• CRAWFORD COUNTY: 35 percent.
• OTTAWA COUNTY: 34 percent.
• DELAWARE COUNTY: 31 percent.
Source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation