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Why Where You Live Has a Big Impact on Your Health

February 25, 2017

Your local community may have more of an impact on your overall health than you realize, according to one recent study.

In the study, published in the journal Health Affairsresearchers reviewed survey data provided by adults from more than 3,000 counties across the country. They assigned a well-being score to each county based on how people responded to questions about their lifestyle habits, work environment, physical and emotional health, how satisfied they were in life and quality of life issues such as access to safe and affordable housing and health care.

Researchers found that life expectancy rose by 1.9 years for women and 2.6 years for men for every 4.2-point increase in a county’s well-being score. This trend held true even when researchers accounted for factors such as race, poverty and education.

The study highlights that it may not always be easy for people to make choices that improve their overall physical and emotional health if their community lacks access to tools and resources to promote optimal health. If someone lives in a food desert, for example, he or she may not have easy access to grocery stores or farmers’ markets that offer fresh, whole fruits and vegetables.

Population health has become a larger focus as we look for ways to improve health outcomes in communities across the country. One study published last November examined the role population health plays in preventable deaths in a community. That study reviewed 16 years of data and found that deaths due to heart disease, diabetes and the flu reduced over time in communities where multi-sector networks (organizations like hospitals, community health centers and employer-sponsored programs) supported population health initiatives. The study’s researchers said their findings support the idea that these resources can help close geographic and socioeconomic gaps in population health.

The importance of community programs that promote good health and support residents in this effort can’t be understated. Many people want to live a healthy lifestyle, but they need the resources and guidance to accomplish this.

It’s why the hospital and myself have become involved in two different community health programs. Orlando Health — Health Central Hospital is now a partner in Healthy West Orange, an initiative designed to make West Orange one of the healthiest communities in the country. We’ll focus on health status, nutrition, fitness and lifestyle in the community and review data on adult obesity, food insecurity, community safety, access to quality care and dozens of other data points to assess the progress we’ve made in helping the community become healthier. So far, we’ve held health fairs and launched the Healthy Leaders program. About 125 community leaders have joined the six month-program to make healthy lifestyle changes in their own lives so they then can encourage those around them to do the same.

I also started a local version of the Walk-With-a-Doc program here in Central Florida. The first and third Friday of every month at West Orange Trails, I meet with a group of my patients and we walk together. They also have an opportunity to ask me health-related questions.

The American Heart Association’s Walk-With-a-Doc program is nationwide, but starting a local walk has given me the opportunity to connect with my patients. I’ve always been a small-town doctor and I believe in developing close relationships with patients and their families. The program also is a great way for me to practice what I preach about taking steps toward good health.

Exercise is just one component of positive overall health, but it’s really important. Research has shown that walking is a great way to remain physically active. About 145 million people in the country walk regularly, making it the most popular form of exercise for 6 in 10 Americans.

Walking is low impact and decreases stress on the joints. Anyone can do it and it’s safe even for people with heart conditions, orthopedic issues and those who are more than 20 percent overweight. According to the American Heart Association, walking for as little as 30 minutes a day has significant health benefits, including lowering your risk of heart disease, helping you maintain a healthy weight, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, breast and colon cancer, improving blood pressure and blood sugar levels and boosting your mood.

My hope is that programs like Walk-With-a-Doc and Healthy West Orange will encourage more people to get moving and stay healthy. As the previous studies show, local communities need all the support they can get.

Interested in the Walk-With-a-Doc program? Join me for a walk the first and third Friday of each month at 1:30 pm, at the West Orange Trail at 17914 State Road 438 in Winter Garden.

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