When we think about improving our health, steps we can take as individuals probably come to mind first – things like: eating more fruits and vegetables, sitting less and seeing the doctor when we should.
And, of course, these behaviors are really important for boosting our health and lowering the risk of many diseases. But one thing often hidden behind the health recommendations we see on websites, or read in columns like this one, is the importance that our surroundings can have on the choices we make.
“Our environment affects how easy or hard it is to choose, and then keep up with, healthy behaviors,” said Dr. Aimee James, a professor in the Division of Public Health Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
For example, nice sidewalks or paths near home make it easier to walk before work. With grocery stores and farmers markets nearby, it’s easier to choose healthier foods over fast food. And if there is good public transportation, it’s can be easier to get to doctor appointments.
Many of these things exist because people in the community decided they were a good idea and worked to make them a reality. “We have more power than we often realize to make changes that can help shape the health of the places where we live, work and go to school,” James said.
Big efforts can have an impact. Smaller efforts can, too. Together, they can all help build momentum that helps people in a community make and sustain healthy choices. And the ways you can engage in your community are as varied as you’d like them to be. You could:
- Use social media to raise local awareness about the importance of water bottle-filling stations in schools and other public buildings.
- Send emails or make phone calls to members of the city council about the need for free sunscreen dispensers in local parks.
- Attend a meeting of the school board to support the need for healthy food and drink options in school cafeterias and at after-school activities.
- Contact the county transit office about adding bus stops that make it easier to get to the local medical clinic.
- Take part in clean-up and maintenance events for parks and walking trails.
- Submit an opinion piece or letter to the editor to the local paper about the need for more safe sidewalks throughout the community.
- Work with your employer to organize a lunch-time walking club.
- Coach a youth sports or dance team.
- Run for the city council or county commission.
These can be satisfying efforts, knowing you’re helping to make changes that can have a positive and lasting impact for your neighbors, James said. Plus, it can strengthen the bonds within communities. “By engaging with and working to improve our communities, we make friends and acquaintances we never might have met otherwise. We support each other and improve not just our own health, but the health of our entire community.”
Of course, these types of changes can take time. So, patience can be important. But like other things we do to stay healthy, these broader changes can be well worth the effort.
“We can improve the way things are,” James said. “And that usually starts with one person saying, ‘This can be better. This can change. Who’s with me?’ ”
It’s your community’s health. Take control.
Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.