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Commonwealth's Counties

2018 Presidential Initiative: Spotlight on Physical Activity – Healthy Virginia Counties in Action

In my last column, we looked at the benefits of physical activity and how Virginia stacks up relative to other states. Virginians exercise at rates slightly above the national average, but as a state, we have plenty of room for improvement. Fortunately, as with the issues of food insecurity and obesity, Virginia’s counties have stepped up to meet the challenge of promoting active living.

Access to Recreational Facilities
One barrier to getting enough exercise is lack of access to safe recreational spaces; when roads are unsafe for pedestrians or cyclists, off-road options, such as bike paths and trails, are great alternatives for outdoor recreation. By working with state and community partners, Powhatan County was able to leverage federal funding awarded through the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to renovate and expand the trails at Fighting Creek Park. In order to stretch the federal dollars and the required local match, the County divided the project into phases; County staff installed the bulk of the trail, local companies donated easements, and community volunteers such as the Boy Scouts, Goochland-Powhatan Master Gardeners, and the Rotary Club cleared brush, built benches, and donated fitness equipment. The result is a 2.5 mile loop that can be used for walking or jogging and connects the community to the many resources in Fighting Creek Park, including the YMCA, picnic shelters, and the public library.

A key funding source for these types of projects is the Transportation Alternatives Program, which is funded through the major federal surface transportation bill (most recently the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act) and largely administered by the Virginia Department of Transportation. Recreational trails, projects that facilitate children walking or biking to school, and other non-traditional transportation projects are eligible to apply, based on certain criteria.

Another often-cited barrier to regular leisure-time physical activity is cost. Dinwiddie County tackled this challenge by creatively reusing a building that was generously donated to the community to help meet the need for recreation programs in the southern part of the county. Dinwiddie County’s significant investment in renovating the building, paired with community donations and foundation support, allowed the new Robert and Betty Ragsdale Community Center, which opened in May 2017, to offer a seniors’ lounge, an indoor playground, and a computer lab, among other amenities. The center also includes an exercise room, which residents may use for a fee of $1 per hour. This pay-as-you-go fee structure is much more affordable than a traditional gym membership, which often requires a significant monthly fee. The center has been an immediate success: in its first year of operation, approximately 13,500 people visited – including VACo members from Regions One and Four, who met at the center in May as part of VACo’s 2018 regional meetings.

Botetourt County is also finding ways to enhance county assets through community investment. The Recreation Incentive Fund provides matching funds for recreation improvements on County-owned property, as well as property owned by towns within the County. Projects can include repairs or enhancements to property as well as the creation of new facilities on County property, and funding is awarded through an application process that includes vetting by an advisory commission of community volunteers. Assistant to the County Administrator Cody Sexton cited the Greenfield Disc Golf Course as a particularly successful project; the course was built on County-owned land by a local disc golf association with the assistance of the Recreation Incentive Fund, creating a wonderful public amenity by leveraging public dollars with private funding and volunteer labor. Since the Fund was established in 1998, it has generated more than $1.5 million in improvements, with less than half of that amount contributed in County funds. The Recreation Incentive Fund has been so successful that it has served as a model for a sister program for Botetourt County library projects.

Healthy Habits for Children
Recent research is confirming what we know intuitively to be true – children who are active early in life grow into healthy adults. An interesting study in 2013 found that the greatest predictor of its subjects’ health status at age 75 was whether they had played varsity sports as teenagers! The benefits of exercise for children can be academic as well as physical – a recent Danish study found that kids who rode bicycles or walked to school performed better on tasks that required concentration.

Walking or biking to school has declined significantly in America over the past several decades; in a national survey, parents cited distance and a variety of safety-related concerns as barriers to this transportation option. The Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program, created in the 2005 federal surface transportation reauthorization bill, provides funding to encourage children to bike and walk to school by making these transportation options safer. In 2013, SRTS was folded into the Transportation Alternatives program (a limited amount of non-infrastructure grant funding remains, which may be used for purposes such as education and enforcement).

Stafford County’s “Select-a-Sport” Day, a free community event hosted in partnership with several local youth sports organizations, allows children to try out a variety of sports without having to make what can often be a substantial financial commitment for equipment and registration fees. This fun event, which started in 2014, allows children to experiment with sports such as field hockey, tennis, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball, football, basketball, and golf, at no charge to the participants, and at a relatively low cost to the County. This year’s event was held this past weekend – you can hear about all the fun on offer in this video shared on Stafford County Parks and Recreation’s Facebook page.

Workforce Wellness
County governments are major employers in Virginia, and efforts to improve the health of the county workforce can ripple out into the community at large in meaningful ways. In addition to the benefits of leading by example and encouraging employees who serve others to take care of themselves, promoting a culture of health within county governments can lead to potential savings in benefit costs. The Centers for Disease Control points out that four of the ten most costly health conditions for American employers are all related to heart disease and stroke – conditions for which regular physical activity can reduce risks.

Henrico County implemented an intensive employee fitness and wellness program in 2009, pairing employees with fitness trainers who worked with them to set goals and design an individual fitness plan. Participating employees made major improvements in their health even in a short period of time. The County also offers free fitness programming to all employees, with access to a weight room, fitness classes, and group fitness training sessions.

Extensive resources on workforce wellness are available at the CDC’s Workplace Health Promotion site, which includes information on evidence-based programs for specific conditions, research projects, and resources for employer self-assessments.

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