MUSKEGON — Rather than just sit back and watch chronic health problems worsen, quite possibly costing jobs and hurting the area’s economic health, an assortment of community groups and businesses want to do something about it.
The initial goals of the new initiative, known as Stay Active Muskegon, is to get people to become more active, eat better and take better care of their health.
The venture goes beyond trying to improve the overall health of people. It’s an economic development issue as well.
As long as Muskegon County has a larger share of the population overweight or obese and has higher incidence rates of chronic disease than state averages, which are above national averages, the area is at an economic disadvantage. An unhealthy, inactive community leads to higher health-care costs, which in turn contributes to the cost of doing business in Muskegon County.
“We know that the inactivity issue is impacting health care costs and we know health care costs are strangling business of all sizes,” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, which is a co-sponsor of Stay Active Muskegon.
Here’s a look at incidence rates for a variety of health conditions for Muskegon County, compared to the state average:
Muskegon Co.: 66.5%
Muskegon Co.: 28.8%
Muskegon Co.: 9.4%
High blood pressure
Muskegon Co.: 35%
Muskegon Co.: 35%
Muskegon Co.: 27.2%
SOURCE: Muskegon Co. Health Department 2001 Behavior Risk Factor survey
“We need to have Muskegon have the image that its citizens are healthy. It’s an economic development issue,” Larsen said. “We definitely want to see a leaner, meaner work force.”
More than 66 percent of Muskegon County residents are overweight and nearly 29 percent are obese, according to data from a health risk survey the Muskegon County Health Department conducted in 2001. Muskegon County also has incidence rates for diabetes and high blood pressure, conditions that are partly attributed to a person’s lifestyle and weight, that are higher than state averages.
To combat the medical problems and costs associated with poor eating habits and lifestyle — diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease among them — the organizers of Stay Active Muskegon are mounting an initiative that at the onset will focus on awareness and “increasing physical activity, health conscious eating and improving community health,” according to the group’s mission statement.
The key to reversing unhealthy trends involve much more than getting people to become more active and eating better. It comes down to generating cultural changes as well, all the way to how subdivisions are developed and urban areas are redeveloped.
“We really have to look at how do we make long-term change and part of that means changing our values,” said Vondie Woodbury, director of the Muskegon Community Health Project, which is spearheading the initiative.
“We have to start somewhere. We just can’t go on like this … we’re a sick community,” Woodbury said. “It’s an investment in a permanent solution of getting a community to look very consciously at not only individual behavior but our community to look at this is a new way.”
Still in the formative stages, Stay Active Muskegon was launched publicly last week. The initiative comes in the wake of growing evidence that links rising rates of obesity and being overweight with rising health-care costs.
A recent analysis conducted by the Ann Arbor-based research firm Altarum on behalf of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. concluded that overweight and obese persons could expect to incur $1,500 in additional medical costs annually because of health problems associated with their conditions.
Muskegon County Health Department Director Ken Krause roughly estimates that, based on population and incidence rates, the state’s findings equate to $15 million in annual additional costs to employer and employee health premiums in Muskegon County.
The MEDC study also found that Michigan, when compared to 17 benchmark manufacturing states, has the highest rates of death from coronary heart disease, ranks second for obesity and diabetes, and ranks sixth for smoking.
At a time when Muskegon County is pursuing an economic rebirth from the days as a industrial foundry town, the comparatively unhealthy population and resulting cost to the health-care system can only hurt economic development efforts, Stay Active Muskegon organizers say.
“What does that do to our ability to compete for new business and to keep business here? It doesn’t make us that competitive. If you’ve got a choice and you’ve got a business, are you going to move your business to an unhealthy community?” Woodbury said. “It’s an opportune time to scrutinize ourselves a little closer.”
Also in Michigan, the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness, Health and Sports last May reported the results of an analysis that estimated the cost of physical inactivity by state residents at $8.9 billion annually. Under current trends, that cost will rise 42 percent to $12.65 billion by 2007. Costs include direct and indirect medical care, worker’s compensation and lost productivity in the workplace.
Nationally, medical expenditures related to obesity and being overweight are as high as $93 billion, or 9.1 percent of all health care expenses in the U.S. — a figure that now rivals the cost of smoking, according to researchers whose findings were published in the May 2003 issue of Health Affairs, a national health care journal.
Stay Active Muskegon is initially focusing on health awareness and “quick and neat little things groups can do,” Woodbury said, such as selling pedometers that measure how far a person walks each day and signs that encourage people not to park next to the entrance when they go shopping or at work, but further away so they have to walk across the lot. The Health Project has already sold 1,000 pedometers, at $10 each, and has another 1,200 on order with a waiting list or 400 people, Woodbury said.
The group will also provide employers wellness kits that offer tips for the workplace to encourage healthier lifestyles.
Beyond that, organizers plan to strategize future methods and ultimately will look at issues that go far beyond individual behaviors and at other methods to encourage and promote activity and good health. Land use, for instance, comes into the fold when you begin to consider how residential developments are designed. Do they have sidewalks and bike paths that readily enable people to get out and walk or ride their bike or children to walk or ride their bike to school?
The initiative comes at a time when residential development in on the upswing in Muskegon County and downtown Muskegon is going through a major revitalization push. A recent strategic plan for the business district places a high emphasis on creating a “walk-able” community.
“There’s a lot of stuff related to how we design things we’re building that adds to the difficulty of walking,” the Health Department’s Krause said. “It’s a community problem.”