The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been unarguably busy since COVID-19 made its U.S. debut in early 2020. Despite that focus, other work continued, including on a key initiative to get Americans moving to improve their physical and mental health.
Called Active People, Healthy NationSM , the initiative is designed to get 27 million people to become more physically active by 2027. The key strategy of the effort, which launched in January 2020, is to help create and spotlight “activity-friendly” ways for people to get where they are going.
That means building or improving sidewalks, trails, bicycle lanes and public transit services with equity and inclusion figuring in the choices. People will then be able to walk, bike or roll to work, shopping, social engagements and community activities .
Active People, Healthy Nation — which aligns well with the work of the AARP Livable Communities initiative — is notably different from past pursuits, such as President John F. Kennedy’s push for 50-mile trail hikes in the early 1960s or programs that encourage folks to work out at a gym.
“During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic we saw the tremendous benefit that being able to walk, run and bike outdoors could have on people’s physical and mental health,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer. “Post-COVID, it’s vitally important for local, state and national leaders to ensure that our communities continue to support this kind of activity for people of all ages."
Enabling daily trips that involve the whole body in aerobic activity is a strategy endorsed by the CDC’s top scientists to meet what’s considered a crisis of inactivity that is leading to poor health for so many. According to the CDC, Active People, Healthy Nation’s potential benefits for people of all ages fall into two tracks:
- Highlighting and promoting the science proving that regular activity leads to better health
- Encouraging communities to develop plans and policies that improve pedestrian, bicyclist and transit-user safety on sidewalks, roads, trails and paths
To help inspire and implement change, the CDC has identified three target audiences, whom it identifies as Individual Influencers, Organizations and Community Champions (i.e. elected officials and other local leaders).
These Are the Champions
The nonprofit organization Smart Growth America is partnering with the CDC by organizing a learning collaborative through the Active People, Healthy Nation Champions Institute. Emily Schweninger, the deputy director of Thriving Communities at Smart Growth America, helped lead the first Champions Institute, which hosted 21 participants, ranging from local leaders of metro areas, including Houston, Texas, to tiny communities such as Alma, Arkansas (see the roster).
Join the 2021 Champions Institute
June 15: Applications open
June 30: Smart Growth America hosts an informational webinar
July 15: Applications are due
September (date to be announced): The training begins
Mayors, city council members, county commissioners, tribal representatives and other local elected officials are eligible to participate.
The participants attended six monthly classes, starting with, Schweninger says, an introduction to what “activity-friendly routes to everyday destinations” means in the context of planning. The program then shifted into an examination of “Complete Streets,” a transportation policy that emphasizes the need for roadways to be safe for all users. Key to the lessons, Schweninger adds, is “understanding that there have been historical inequities baked into our streets.”
Presenters discussed the need for political savvy and communications strategies with a special nod to coalition building and telling a compelling story about why changes are necessary. After completing the course, the trained Champions began working on projects within their communities that incorporate the principles of the Active People, Healthy Nation initiative and Complete Streets. They’ll come together virtually to share what they created and learned.
Active People and AARP
As the CDC promotes and implements Active People, Healthy Nation across the country, it has a special interest in older Americans.
“More than 30 million people age 50 or older aren’t active at all,” says Ken Rose, who heads the Active People, Healthy Nation initiative. By moving, Rose says, they can “reduce cognitive decline, improve balance and reduce the risk of falls.” He adds that being active can also reduce and control the incidence of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Several communities with leaders in the Champions Institute are enrolled in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. (See sidebar.)
One member city with an organization that’s working closely with the CDC on Active People, Healthy Nation is Cleveland, Ohio, which joined the AARP network in 2015. Three years later, the nonprofit Bike Cleveland received an AARP Community Challenge Grant to create Silver Spokes, a program that encourages cycling for older adults.
Silver Spokes participants are introduced to e-bikes and recumbent bicycles which, explains Deltrece Daniels, the program’s coordinator, don’t require a rider to throw a leg high in the air to mount up. “If you enjoy sitting on your couch at home, you will enjoy this,” she jokes during presentations.
Local leaders from communities enrolled in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities are working with the Active People, Healthy Nation initiative. Several took part in the first cohort of the Champions Institute.
- Athens, Georgia
- Boise, Idaho
- Cleveland, Ohio
- Houston, Texas
- Little Rock, Arkansas
- Louisville, Kentucky
- Phoenix, Arizona
- Rochester, New York
- St. Petersburg, Florida
Silver Spokes also includes driver education, with lessons about how to safely share the road with cyclists, who are taught by the program about how to stay safely distant from cars and other vehicles.
Bike Cleveland’s connection to the CDC is through a program called REACH, which stands for Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health.
“We were intentional about working with the city’s Department of Aging and engaging people on the east side of Cleveland, where the majority is people of color,” says Jacob Van Sickle, Bike Cleveland’s director. The program paused during COVID but is gearing up again.
Phoenix, Arizona, another age-friendly network community, is also an Active People, Healthy Nation adopter, doing so through the Maricopa Association of Governments, which in January 2021 was the first regional group to issue a proclamation signing on to the program.
“When I look at Active People, Healthy Nation, I see it as a reaction to the obesity epidemic that befell this country over the past 30 years," says Jason Stephens, the association’s active transportation program coordinator. "Americans adopted a low-fat, high-sugar diet, and the focus changed from whole foods to packaged foods and from saturated fats to trans fats.”
To Stephens, Active People, Healthy Nation can help mitigate a public health crisis and affect the transportation safety and quality of life issues brought on by decades of city and regional planning that prioritized cars ahead of pedestrians.
Active People, Healthy Nation is among the range of tools needed to make communities throughout the nation healthier and more livable for people of all ages. As the priorities and strategies of the CDC, AARP and Smart Growth America, among others, proves, the work requires the coordinated and independent, but complementary, efforts of many.
* Active People, Healthy Nation is a service mark of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Use of Active People, Healthy NationSM does not imply review, approval, or endorsement by HHS.
Steve Mencher is a writer and multimedia producer. He created and produces Living Downstream: The Environmental Justice Podcast and was news director for KRCB, a PBS/NPR outlet in Northern California.
Page published June 2021
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