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Business leaders, health groups launching Live Well STL to battle obesity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 9, 2012 - It's easy to use your laptop or smart phone to keep track of who's performing at the Peabody, playing at the Bistro, and plenty of other events in between.

But suppose you want to find a fitness class that's available tomorrow afternoon for under 10 bucks. Or a place close to your home that sells fresh produce. Or just figure out where to buy a tasty tofu salad.

Tracking down health-related goods and services isn't as easy as finding a pizza parlor. It can be a challenge, but the task is expected to become a lot easier once a web-based search engine for local health and fitness events is created.

It is being developed as part of the Live Well STL campaign, which grew out of a $50,000 planning grant that the United Health Foundation awarded last year to the St. Louis Business Health Coalition. The grant aimed to mobilize people and resources to address local health issues. The coalition gave the money to the Midwest Health Initiative, which brings together stakeholders to improve health care in the region. It will be responsible for running the web-based health resource guide.

The online guide is expected to be up and running late this year or early next year. It's among three Live Well programs dedicated to helping residents achieve or maintain a healthy weight. The second program, which has yet to be funded, is expected to help primary-care teams of doctors, nurses and others health professionals learn strategies to encourage patients to lose weight.

The third program involves pilot program in which a three-member team visits Business Health Coalition member companies to recognize and encourage evidence-based health practices at worksites to tackle obesity, says Mary Jo Condon, the Business Health Coalition's senior director of partnerships and projects.  The three team members on the project are all Business Health Coalition employees with backgrounds in health or social work, she said.

During a typical visit to a worksite, she says, the team might inquire about issues ranging from the number of nutritious snacks offered in vending machines, to ways that the businesses accommodate employees who might want to ride their bikes to work, to whether discounts are offered to workers who might want to slim down at a fitness center.

The Live Well STL campaign and the three programs came into being after about a year of sessions and discussions among diverse participants, including doctors, patients, hospitals, businesses, workers, unions and insurers, Condon said.

The United Health Foundation's $50,000 grant was one of six awards made nationwide. The foundation says the awards were made to encourage local groups to tackle what it says is a rising incidence of costly and preventable chronic diseases, such as diabetes.

The foundation's annual America's Health Rankings report, issued in December, showed that obesity was a growing problem, increasing by more than 37 percent since 2001. It praised Missouri for some initiatives, such as achieving early prenatal care for most pregnant women. But it said the state ranked 32nd in diabetes, affecting more than 9 percent of Missouri's adults. The state also ranked 40th in tobacco use and 39th in preventable hospitalizations. The report said Missouri ranked 40th nationwide in overall health, down from 39th a year earlier. Vermont was listed as the nation's healthiest state.

The findings reinforce the importance of the three programs created by Live Well STL, Condon says.

Assessing the workplace

The initial team assessments of a few coalition businesses this spring will be followed by a meeting in June to talk about expanding the assessment program to both Business Coalition members and non-member companies. Condon says she expects between 20 to 30 companies to take part, adding that she had no immediate estimate of the number of workers the companies will represent.

The assessment tool, she says, offers a reliable way to show employers whether "the things that they are doing at the work sites are helping their employees achieve or maintain a healthy weight."

Businesses earn points, based on their responses to questions on the assessment form. Condon says, "You might get a couple of points for having healthy options in your vending machines, such as fresh fruits and small portion of almonds rather than chips and cookies. Or you may offer sugar-free drinks and 100 percent fruit juices rather than sodas."

She adds that the assessment can be tailored to fit the business. Large companies, for example, might be evaluated in part on the way they price food options in the cafeteria.

"Are they charging less for foods that are healthier rather than more? Smaller companies shouldn't be penalized for not having cafeterias. For them, we might look at other things, such as are they providing discounts for gym memberships or do they have a place where people can store food prepared at home and brought to work. We know that bringing food from home can be healthier than going out for fast food."

Condon says the Live Well campaign itself represents the culmination of more than nine months of work involving "literally hundreds of members of the community to understand what's already occurring out there and gaps that need to be filled. We heard that there were already hundreds of programs out there from employers to community groups."

But she says there was consensus on the need to strengthen and better connect what's already in place for addressing obesity.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.