Health & Medicine

Growth in physical activity a 'success story'

Positive news about the health of Kentuckians is rare, with the state ranking consistently near the bottom of most measures of good health.

But a recent study showed Kentucky scoring well for the number of people who are getting enough physically activity.

"We were surprised," said Dr. Chris Murray, director of The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which conducted the study. "Kentucky is a success story."

The findings from the independent health research center based at the University of Washington were collected over several years and broke out results by gender and county for the United States. Kentucky excelled in the percent of change in people getting sufficient physical activity or 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week.

Seven of the top 10 counties for women were in Kentucky. Six of the top 10 counties for men were also in Kentucky. The counties for men where Pike, Elliot, Muhlenberg, Martin, Ohio and McCreary. The counties for women were Morgan, McCreay, Owen Pulaski, Edmonson, Elliott and Knox.

Women getting sufficient physical exercise in Morgan County went up by 18 percent, the highest increase in the country. Morgan County Judge Executive Tim Conley said his community has been working to make exercise more of a priority. For example, people have created clubs and get together to walk or run. There has been an effort to educate people about how exercise is connected to good health. One of the reasons Kentucky had such a high percentage change was that so few people were getting sufficient exercise when the research began, said Murray.

But, he said, Kentucky has made greater strides than other states which had similarly challenging beginnings.

He said the research showed three factors that seem to have a positive impact.

■ Community programs that promote physical activity.

■ A physical environment that promotes physical activity such as parks or walking trails.

■ Leadership at the state and local level invested in change.

The changes reflected in the research are a reflection of an on-going effort in Kentucky, said Elaine Russell, obesity program manager for the state department of public health.

State health officials created a plan for improving nutrition and physical activity in 2005, she said.

Individual communities have to figure out what works best for them, she said, but the state adds incentives such as providing grants to build things like walking trails or pedestrian paths. There has also been a move to help communities use their available resources more efficiently, she said. Nearly every community has a school and many of those schools have tracks that would be good for walking. But, she said, because of worry about liability if someone got hurt, schools often locked the public out of the tracks at night and on weekends. The state helped to change that law and helped to mitigate the liability issue. Now, she said, more school tracks are being made available to the general public.

Murray said it's hard to pinpoint what has made a difference in Kentucky. Other states have similar programs without as much success. So, he said, the research will continue. "What's interesting is trying to figure the formula that has worked there," he said.