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Forum offers new prescriptions for Americans’ well-being

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Rear Adm. Boris Lushniak, acting surgeon general, left, and Alice Rivlin, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, were among the speakers at a recent Health Beyond Health Care forum. (Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post)

Rear Adm. Boris Lushniak, acting surgeon general, left, and Alice Rivlin, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, were among the speakers at a recent Health Beyond Health Care forum. (Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post)

WASHINGTON – Yoga, Zumba and group exercise classes are increasingly common in outdoor parks around the country. Bicyclists, and dedicated lanes for them, are growing in number from coast to coast, too.

Architects are paying more attention to how buildings can affect health, and designing offices that make it easier to climb stairs (and burn calories) and harder to find the elevator.

People in the United States don’t live as long and are not as healthy as citizens of many other countries, but a growing number of grass-roots efforts are aimed at improving Americans’ well-being.

“I think we are on the cusp of actually taking health and wellness seriously,” said Rear Adm. Boris Lushniak, acting surgeon general. He urged people to “go retro” and start walking and cooking. Although the United States is superb at sick care – surgeries and prescriptions – he said it’s time to focus on preventive care: staying healthy.

Lushniak spoke at The Washington Post’s recent Health Beyond Health Care forum, an event that convened people working on health initiatives that have nothing to do with doctors or drugs.

Activists from Detroit talked about turning abandoned parks into outdoor gyms and urging people to run at 5 p.m. for the “new happy hour.”

We heard how it’s getting easier and more affordable to buy fresh fruit and vegetables in a West Virginia town where grocery stores are rare and fast-food joints are everywhere. A U.S. senator even talked about what a preacher in Mississippi is doing to keep churchgoers more fit and thin.

With 18 percent of adults still smoking, one in three adults considered obese and diabetes skyrocketing, it’s time to focus on ways to keep healthy, not just on what to do when it’s already too late.

Here are excerpts from the forum. Video from the forum can be found at wapo.st/postforums.

Walking and cooking as patriotic duties

Rear Adm. Boris Lushniak

This nation does incredible things once you have a disease. We have incredible pharmaceutical agents, we have incredible surgeries and operations, we have devices we can implant. But in fact that’s not health care, that’s sick care.

I think we’re on the cusp of actually taking health and wellness seriously. I think for the longest time it’s been on the back burner. The time is right, right now. We have to treat health as a natural resource. We have to put it up on the same level as the economy.

When the economy goes sour, all of sudden there’s reaction. There’s the sense of somebody has to do something if the economy is bad. Guess what, folks? The economy doesn’t do anything without a healthy workforce. It doesn’t do anything without healthy people.

Let’s go retro, OK? We used to walk as a society. Walk 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Think of it as a patriotic duty for the good of our nation. Let’s start cooking again. Let’s use fresh products.

You know what a joy both those activities are? The definition of health from the perspective of the World Health Organization is complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity. If you take that definition, you realize what an obligation all of us have.

It’s not about the money

Alice Rivlin, senior fellow, Brookings Institution

I’m a maverick on this. I think the reason to be healthier is it’s good to be healthier. You feel better, you’re happier, you’re more productive at work.

There is a mythology that some people have that we could cut our heath-care costs a lot if we prevented diseases. We could cut them somewhat in some circumstances but generally, if we are healthier and live longer, we will consume health care over a longer period.

So the primary reason for doing this is it’s a good thing to – and it makes us healthier and happier and more productive – not that it saves a lot of money.

Banning fried chicken at church

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Out of 50 states, somebody is going to be first in obesity. It happens to be my state. But walk through an airport, walk through a county fair, go to a Walmart – our whole society is obese. From 2005 to 2011, Mississippi saw a reduction in childhood obesity of 13.3 percent.

Somebody is doing something right and I think it started with towns like Hernando and with pastors like the Rev. Michael Minor. He realized his congregation was plagued by obesity and he took dramatic action for a Southern preacher.

Guess what he did? He banned fried chicken at church suppers. And he set up a walking track around the church perimeter.

A core responsibility of mayors

Stephen Goldsmith, professor of government, Harvard Kennedy School

In New York City in 2010, the mayor’s office had a report on how to approach health that looked at the built community. It looked at making sure that everybody is within 10 minutes of a park and/or a bike trail to a park.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., gives an overview of Congress and health issues legislation. (Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post)

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., gives an overview of Congress and health issues legislation. (Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post)

Outside New York City, many cities use their zoning practices actually to defeat the purposes of a walkable city, but zoning can be used to mass the buildings and structure the walk spaces in a very deliberate way that produces not only a more exciting environment in which people can live but a healthy environment.

Time to put politics aside

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

There are some early conversations emerging between Republicans and Democrats in Congress and outside of Congress.

There are a few of us inside, to say, “OK, look. We’re going to agree to disagree about ‘Obamacare’. But there’s a lot that’s going on out there that we should be talking about.”

The Washington Post’s Health Beyond Health Care forum was co-sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in partnership with Whole Foods Market and the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations. The Post maintains full editorial control over the content of the conference and this special report.

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