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Walkability cure for obesity

The simple act of walking is a low impact, best kept secret that can change a person’s life.

Island County’s Environmental Health Assessment Team has been working “feverishly” since 2002 to find solutions for local environmental health problems. In the cauldron of possible issues to tackle, EHAT identified illegal dumping and walkability as the two top priorities. The latter was the focus of a Dec. 7 forum in Oak Harbor.

The first forum — held last October in Coupeville — provided EHAT an opportunity to gather candid input from the community on its action plan to address walkability, a measure of the extent to which the community provides safe, enjoyable, connected, and convenient access to walking. More than 50 participants from about 20 organizations took part.

“We received wonderful feedback,” said Whitney Webber, EHAT project coordinator. “With small group sessions we looked at three focus areas: convenience and connectivity, recreation and safe routes to school.”

EHAT has been implementing its work plan and tweaking its priorities since October. The recent forum, chaired by Island County Commissioner John Dean, gave EHAT members a chance to report back to the community.

Seven presenters, ranging from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station’s fitness coordinator, to an elementary school principal, to a senior planner with the city of Oak Harbor, provided information and testimonials regarding the importance of walkability.

“This has exceeded my expectations,” said Webber, who also used the forum as an opportunity to share success stories. “I asked people to share how EHAT and the community have worked together to address walkability. It was very motivational.”

Carrie McLachlan, Island County Public Health supervisor of assessment and community development, revealed new findings generated by the county’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System on obesity and overweight, physical activity levels, and walking.

“It is exciting to find a roomful of Island County residents eager to listen to data about the current epidemic in overweight and obesity due to lack of physical activity and poor nutrition habits,” she said after the forum. “It is even more exciting to see that group eager to take action to make Island County more walkable. Walking is easy, it is free and we have so many beautiful places to walk in Island County!”

Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen said the city’s comprehensive plan fits into EHAT’s goals in setting creation of trails and parks as a priority. Fort Nugent Park is one example of the local efforts. A project on paper since the ’80s to connect Windjammer and Flintstone parks is now in the permitting process, she added.

“It may be all well and good to talk the walk, but how do we walk the walk?” Cohen rhetorically asked the forum attendees. “I believe as an organization interested in public health we must also examine ourselves, figure out how we not only work to improve the larger availability of recreational opportunities but what do we as individuals do to promote healthy activity in our own lives?  How can we be community leaders in wellness?”

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