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Ohioans fatter, sicker six years after health program launched


COLUMBUS — Ohioans are less healthy today by almost every indicator — fatter and more prone to heart disease and stroke — than they were when the state set out to reverse unhealthy trends six years ago.

Of six measurements the state identified for the risk of chronic disease, the numbers dropped only for smoking and being overweight, according to a review of state health data by The Associated Press. But the same data showed an increase in obesity.

The state started Healthy Ohioans in 2000 to persuade residents to improve their health, fitness and nutrition habits. The idea was to get schools, businesses and state agencies to promote exercise, better nutrition and an anti-smoking philosophy.

Terrie Turmeer, an Ohio Natural Resources Department employee, uses a state employee fitness program to get in shape during her lunch break Friday in Columbus.

But the program had a modest budget — never more than $250,000 a year for salaries and travel for two to three employees — and it showed, according to the AP review:

— While heart disease as a cause of death has dropped since 2000, it is still the leading cause of death in Ohio. Meanwhile, the number of Ohio adults suffering from coronary heart disease has increased, from 5 percent in 2000 to 5.6 percent last year.

— In 2000, 6.4 percent of Ohio adults had diabetes, a figure that has grown to 6.7 percent.

— In 2000, 2.5 percent of Ohio adults had had a stroke. That figure was 2.9 percent last year.

Former Gov. Bob Taft, who started Healthy Ohioans, was particularly concerned about the low number of Ohioans who ate fruit and vegetables at least five times a day — only one in five at the time. The number has inched up 1 percentage point.

Ohio ranks 15th in the nation based on percentage of obese adults, according to a report by Trust for America’s Health, a research group that focuses on disease prevention. The group’s 2007 report said 26 percent of adult Ohioans were obese, up from 25 percent in the 2005 report.

In a sign that money does matter, the anti-smoking milestone — to about 22 percent of residents from 26 percent — was accomplished with the help of other programs funded through Ohio’s $10 billion settlement with major tobacco companies.

Factors contributing to poor health in Ohio are enormous and beyond the reach of one underfunded state initiative, said Jason Sanford, spokesman for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Health Policy Institute of Ohio, a Columbus-based think tank.

Those factors include schools dropping recess, suburban developments that discourage walking and a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in Ohio’s inner cities.

“It’s almost unrealistic to expect one small program like Healthy Ohioans to change all that,” Sanford said.

Despite being an early backer of the effort, the American Cancer Society says the state has never made public health a priority.


falling health

A look at some of Ohio’s health indicators measured by the prevalence of a health problems among Ohioans: 

Heart disease
2000: 5 percent.
2006: 5.6 percent.

2000: 6.4 percent.
2006: 6.7 percent.

2000: 2.5 percent.
2006: 2.9 percent.

Cigarette smoking:
2000: 26.2 percent.
2006: 22.4 percent.

Being overweight
2000: 35.7 percent.
2006: 35.5 percent.

2000: 21.5 percent
2006: 28.4 percent.

Source: Ohio Department of Health

“Public health programs have always had to compete with other programs in the state for funding,” said Tracy Sabetta, spokeswoman for the group.

Taft, a Republican, says the program raised awareness of health issues, especially among schoolchildren, but was hampered by a lack of money. Taft’s eight years in office were marked by tight budgets that sometimes required midyear cuts.

“We had a lot of other priorities,” he said. “It was hard just to get money to market the state for economic development purposes.”

Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat who took office this year, has folded the program into a similarly named Healthy Ohio — with a $4.4 million budget over two years — because he believes the state needs a more comprehensive approach. Early goals include $100,000 for a program in Cincinnati trying to reduce obesity in minorities and $500,000 for statewide grants to prevent and manage diabetes.

Healthy Ohioans spent a total of $1.3 million on salaries and travel over six years. To put that in perspective, that’s slightly more than what the state pays every hour on health care for poor children and families.

The program’s biggest expenditures were a one-time $290,880 contract in 2001 to market the program and $5 million in state grants in 2006 for local park programs, hospitals, YMCAs and other health organizations.

Taft tapped then state senator and former Cleveland Browns football star Richard Schafrath to lead the program. Though Schafrath was an ardent supporter of the program’s goals and drove hundreds of miles around Ohio promoting it, the appointment was pure politics: by leaving the Senate, Schafrath opened up a seat that helped Republicans avoid a leadership battle in the House.

Schafrath, who left the job after two years, was frustrated by the lack of funding and how little schools and parents were doing to push children to be active and eat right.

“We just don’t teach fitness and we don’t teach health. It’s just assumed, and we’re paying the price for it,” he said.

Over the years, the program spread the message of healthy living. The annual report for 2003 said 819 schools applied for a healthy schools awards program. That number rose to about 1,900 last year.

Yet a 2005 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 13 percent of Ohio high school students were overweight, 13th highest out of 39 states surveyed.

The state also reported that 24 state agencies submitted wellness plans to a state committee overseeing health and fitness.

The Environmental Protection Agency said in 2005 it could probably do more with employee health screening — pay workers’ share of some of the screening, for instance — if money was available.

Almost all state agencies have some kind of modest fitness program created under Healthy Ohioans, such as weight loss initiatives, walking groups and brown bag lunches where speakers address health issues.

The program at the Department of Natural Resources helped change Terrie Termeer’s life. Two years ago, about to turn 50, she was packing 184 pounds on a 5-foot frame. Walking up stairs or mowing the lawn was a chore.

A cheerleader in high school and college, she wasn’t averse to exercise, just long removed from it. So in January 2005 she decided to try a “Biggest Loser” weight loss program the agency modeled after the reality TV show of the same name.

The first day of the weight and fitness class she couldn’t manage a single push-up or sit-up. Today Termeer, a recycling grant coordinator, completes 75 push-ups and as many as 125 sit-ups during a three-times-a-week workout on her lunch hour.

She’s dropped 24 pounds, gone down two dress sizes, gained muscle strength and feels better about how she looks and feels.

“Once you start to achieve some of those little successes, I think that then gave me the clear motivation to keep going,” Termeer said. “Add to that the fact my kids were proud of me, I was proud of me, my doctors were proud of me.”


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