Advancing health through science, education and medicine

Making Your Community a Fit Community

By: Barbara Ainsworth, Ph.D., MPH, FACSM
AFI Advisory Board Vice-Chair

The annual AFI Data Report offers the full picture of a community's health status by providing both individual data (engaging in physical activity, smoking status, fruit/vegetable intake, etc.) and city-wide data (access to recreation centers, walkability, public transportation, etc.). When translating this picture of health into the AFI Data Report rankings, the higher ranking cities can be seen to have more strengths and resources that support healthy living and fewer challenges that hinder it. The opposite is true for cities near the bottom of the ranking. Another way of looking at it is communities that are ranked toward the top are considered to have strong community fitness, a concept analogous to individuals having strong personal fitness. This is because a community that invests in making the healthy choice the easy choice will ultimately influence health outcomes and lead to more fit residents. 

A sustainable and evidence-based approach that communities can use to build and encourage a culture of health is known as "Policy, Systems and Environmental Change" (PSE). Many communities are familiar with offering programs and events as part of a plan to improve residents' health. This type of traditional approach can be successful in helping individuals create good habits and improve health outcomes. Unlike traditional events and programs that focus on short-term changes, a PSE approach is aimed at long-term and ongoing behavioral change. A PSE approach makes healthier choices a real and feasible option for every member of the community by looking at the laws, rules and environments that impact behavior. Is a PSE approach already being applied in your community? Can you think of laws, ordinances or rules about tobacco use, physical activity or food options at schools? Is there a strong public transportation system or a movement to improve the public transportation options for all residents? Is it easy and safe to walk or bike to destinations in your community? 

Participation is needed from all residents, companies, nonprofit organizations, churches and governmental agencies to successfully improve the health of a community. You can get more involved in improving the status of your community's health by researching active coalitions to see if work is already underway. For more guidance, the AFI Community Action Guide can help you bring together the right people to talk about these issues as well as outline the planning phase to get your group on the right track.

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