Madison Elementary formed a “walking school bus” to get children — and their parents — to exercise. Good Stuff Restaurants started promoting to-go boxes so customers don’t overeat. Crowne Plaza Hotel on Harbor Drive began opening some meetings with music and dancing.
The cities of Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach are embarking on an ambitious experiment: improve the health of the entire region over a three-year period by transforming homes, workplaces and schools. Community leaders hope the effort will reduce rates of obesity and hypertension and in turn lower hospital admissions and healthcare costs.
As federal officials continue to roll out elements of the healthcare package, local governments throughout the nation are engaged in efforts such as those in the beach cities that they say could have an even greater effect on people’s health. Cities are working to add bike lanes, redo restaurant menus, create neighborhood gardens and make school lunches healthier — changes that health workers say will keep people out of doctors’ offices and hospitals. They are driven by a basic principle: Preventing disease is less expensive than treating it.
“We need to change the built environment so when [residents] go out to restaurants, there are decent choices, and when they step out of their homes and they want to exercise, there are sidewalks and the bike paths are big enough,” said Susan Burden, chief executive of the Beach Cities Health District, a government agency that provides preventive health services in the communities.
Although more cities are trying to increase residents’ physical activity and improve their diets, the ones with the worst health problems are not usually among them, said Susan Babey, a research scientist at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “The cities that are struggling the most don’t have the resources to go out and compete for grants,” she said. “They miss out on some opportunities that they could potentially really benefit from.”
The beach cities are already relatively healthy, but there is room to improve, organizers said. The hypertension rates are among the highest in Los Angeles County, but obesity rates are about in the middle, Babey said. “They are worse than the Westside but better than South L.A.,” she said. Surveys also showed high levels of stress and anger.
They were chosen above roughly 50 other cities to become the nation’s first official “Vitality City” because their leaders were motivated, not because the health needs were greatest, said Dan Buettner, who started the program with a pilot project in Minnesota in 2008. The region received a $3.5-million grant from Tennessee-based Healthways, a company that works to improve wellbeing, and the services of health and city planning experts from throughout the U.S. The Beach Cities Health District is contributing $1.8 million.
“This community demonstrated more than anyone else a readiness for this type of project,” said Buettner, author of a bestselling book about longevity.
Buettner said most people know that they should eat healthfully and exercise, but they don’t. “We can’t force people to do this, but we can create a perfect storm of influence to get a lot of things done,” he said.
At 7:30 a.m. on a September morning, Jane Hyman donned an orange vest, took her 9-year-old daughter’s hand and walked alongside several other children from the neighborhood. A few boys ran ahead, rolling their backpacks behind them. A police officer stopped at the intersection to make sure they crossed safely.
Hyman said the walking school bus — in which parent volunteers lead groups of children to campus — is a great way to start the day. “I love the whole idea of living in a community where you design your life around walkers and bikers rather than cars,” she said.
In addition to the walking school buses, the elementary school holds a morning aerobics class on the playground and gives nutrition lessons in the campus garden. “We all need to be more sensitive to our health needs instead of just going to work and dropping the kids off at school,” said Redondo Beach Unified School District Supt. Steven Keller.
The beach cities aren’t focusing just on children. They have also started dozens of walking groups for adults.
Sonia Davila, 53, said she used to exercise but then got into a slump. Now, she said, she meets her walking group three times a week. “It motivates you because you don’t want to let down the group,” she said as she strode onto the Redondo Beach pier. Walking alongside, Theresa Quin¿ones, 49, said the exercise helped her get in shape — and out of the house. “I wasn’t very social,” she said.
Recognizing that changing people’s behaviors isn’t easy, organizers partnered with a company to map social circles and networks in the beach cities and identify a few thousand people believed to have the greatest influence. They think those people can get their friends to stop smoking and to attend cooking classes.
“Networks are incredibly powerful,” said Larry Miller, chief executive of Boston-based Activate Networks, which did the mapping using census and other publicly available data.
One of the most important things that health officials are looking to change is eating habits. They are urging restaurants to serve meals on smaller plates, create a fruit-only dessert and promote half-size options. “So many of these working families eat out, so if we don’t change restaurants, we’re in trouble,” said Burden, of the Health District.
Good Stuff’s Cris Bennett stopped serving bread automatically, added a side of steamed vegetables and created a “fitness” menu with low-calorie options. “Partially it was a business decision,” he said, “but it was also helping the community eat better without compromising price or what tastes good.”
As part of the Vitality City project, planners are also working to add bike lanes in the region. And they are urging businesses to promote employee health, which they say will raise productivity and lower absenteeism. The Crowne Plaza signed on and started offering more-healthful options in vending machines and the employee cafeteria. More than anything, Human Resources Director Joe Navarro said, the changes have started a dialogue about health.
Vitality City Director Joel Spoonheim said he expects some opposition over the next few years. But he urges naysayers to look at the success the project had in Alberta Lea, Minn., where he said healthcare claims dropped and participants lost an average of 2.6 pounds and boosted their life expectancy by three years.
“It won’t be unanimous what we are doing here,” he said, “but it will get done because community leaders in these three cities recognize the immediate and long-term benefits.”