Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Program launched to fight obesity, promote walking, healthy lifestyles

Members of the local community attending a past Highmark Wholecare event

For more than two years, discussions regarding our most chronic and deadly diseases have been pushed aside due to COVID-19. Especially for our minority and senior populations, preventative care was halted, and the stress, fear, and isolation that occurred as a result of COVID-19 led to poor lifestyle choices that only perpetuated health problems. As a result, our most vulnerable populations are facing illnesses that are far more deadly than coronavirus. I’m talking specifically about obesity.

Obesity is a national pandemic that has been exasperated by the global pandemic. And Latino populations are among the most at-risk. According to the U.S. Office of Minority Health, Latinos are 1.2 times more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites. Among Latino women, nearly 80% are overweight or obese, as compared to 64% of non-Hispanic white women. And this is not limited to adults. Latino children were nearly two times more likely to be obese as compared to non-Latino white children.

We know that obesity leads to a host of health problems and chronic conditions. People who are overweight are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes and LDL cholesterol which are all risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Fortunately, healthy lifestyle changes are simple, though it’s not always easy or culturally supported. That’s where we, as a community, have to make a change. And it all begins with consistent decisions that create a movement. In fact, one of the most powerful ways to combat obesity is movement.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) CDC, physical activity, such as walking, can help improve health even without weight loss. People who are physically active live longer and have a lower risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, and some cancers. Adults need at least 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) of physical activity a week.

Here’s the challenge: In order to motivate high-risk individuals to increase their physical activity, we must ensure there is adequate education, resources, and incentive to do so. This includes creating safe and convenient spaces to walk and forming initiatives that equip people with information that is free, accessible, and easy to follow. All of this can help people, especially senior and minority populations, commit to being more physically active.

Next month, Highmark Wholecare, a leading Pennsylvania-based managed care organization, in collaboration with Harrisburg Housing Authority and Latino Connection, will launch a 12-week Healthy Steps Walking Program where participants will commit to healthy lifestyle choices for the next three months, including increased physical activity.

This program encourages everyone, especially our senior population, to be intentional about improving their habits to live a healthy lifestyle during the summer months by taking a daily walk, making smart eating choices, and addressing health issues promptly. As part of the program, Highmark Wholecare will host seven engagement events at various locations within the Harrisburg Housing Authority that will include giveaways, education, healthy eating demonstrations, and healthy living tips. 

The first event will kick off June 1 at the Harrisburg Housing Authority on Chestnut Street in Harrisburg starting at 1 p.m. This is a free public event, and everyone is welcome.

This initiative is one powerful and intentional step toward bridging the gap that exists in addressing social determinants of health in our minority and high-risk populations. Social determinants of health are factors such as food and housing insecurity, transportation, employment, social support, that impact up to 80% of a person’s health. Prevention requires education, and education requires engagement. The Healthy Steps Walking Program is a step forward and one that we hope will lead to another and another – not just from a community partnership perspective but from the collective steps of individuals who join in this initiative to take back their health. It’s time we get back to being proactive not reactive to matters of health – and the time to get moving is now.

George Fernandez is the founder and CEO of Latino Connection, a national leader in community education, health outreach, and wellness programming focused on reaching low-income, uninsured communities.

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