EDITORIAL: Unhealthy living a built-in problem

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The news that Anderson is the health care spending capital of America is bad enough, but it’s even more discouraging considering the city just northeast of Indianapolis has spent 15 years trying to shed its unhealthy ways.

It’s further evidence that simply cheerleading for healthier lifestyles isn’t enough to get America to shape up.

As we reported last week, a new analysis by Thomson Reuters shows the average resident in Anderson who was covered by an employer-sponsored health insurance plan spent $7,231 on medical care in 2009, more than in any other metropolitan area in the country.

Anderson’s big-spending ways are tied to two culprits: the once-lavish health plan offered by General Motors, which at its peak employed 25,000 workers in the town, and a population that smokes more, weighs more and exercises less than other Hoosiers.

The entitlement culture the benefits plans created and the unhealthy lifestyles they helped perpetuate led to Anderson becoming one of GM’s most expensive locales.

GM responded by beating a path out of town, but not before joining with other community partners to start what is now called Madison Health Partners, a group that stages health fairs, offers disease screenings and promotes fitness education programs in Anderson’s Madison County.

The 15-year-old program is important and has surely saved lives by identifying some people’s health problems before they became critical. Many employers now have wellness programs that offer similar benefits. And the state’s INShape Indiana program is a resource for anyone who wants to eat better and shed their sedentary ways.

But such efforts only nibble at the edges of a stew of cultural and economic factors that have stripped physical activity from our daily routines—not just in Anderson, but in Indianapolis and vast regions of the country.

In a society where cars are too often a necessity and much of our work happens behind a desk, the exercise that used to come naturally is now more likely to require setting aside time for an hour at the gym.

Most of us lack the time, money or will to make that happen. Exhortations alone aren’t enough. We also need infrastructure that supports a healthier way of life.

Health by Design, a local not-for-profit whose mission is to create built environments that foster healthy living, is on the right track. The group promotes, among other things, “complete streets,” streets that serve all users—pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists—and are built to accommodate public transportation.

In 2012, Health by Design will once again ask the Indiana General Assembly to make complete streets part of Indiana Department of Transportation policy. The legislation hasn’t gotten far in the last two sessions. Lawmakers should pass it next year.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard also understands the importance of proper infrastructure. His campaign to add dedicated bike lanes to city streets and the addition of a bike hub at the City Market are both meant to help residents incorporate physical activity into their daily routines.

These are important steps in a society where exercise is still too often just an entry on everyone’s “to do” list.•


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