10 Signs America is Getting Healthier

The United States still has a terrible reputation as the least-healthy developed nation, but in 2014 there were some significant gains in shedding that stigma … and some pounds.

The United States still has a terrible reputation as the least-healthy developed nation, but in 2014 there were some significant gains in shedding that stigma … and some pounds.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation launched the idea of building a “Culture of Health” in America a few years ago, focusing resources on organizations, cities and ideas that are more about health care than sick care.

RWJF CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, explained that a Culture of Health means that a healthy lifestyle is accessible across all social, economic, and geographical barriers, and is a priority to all community members. The organization recently released a list of achievements showing the U.S. is making gains in health across the board this past year.

In no particular order, here are the 10 signs America is developing a Culture of Health, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:

The percentage of kids ages 2-5 who are obese declined by nearly 40% since 2003-2004, according to research released in February. Fourteen percent of the littlest tykes were overweight or obese in 2003-2004. In 2011-2012, that number had dropped to 8.5%.

Unfortunately, the rates for older kids (6-19) remained the same through the same time period, with 17% of kids and teens identified as obese and 31% identified as overweight or obese. Also, there was less improvement in minority communities. But, according to Lavizzo-Mourey, the progress with the tiny tots will start them on the way to having healthier body weights for the rest of their lives.

New school lunch nutrition guidelines were rolled out in 2012, and just a little over one school year in, the new meals were getting a thumbs up from kids of all ages. According to research published in July, 70% of Elementary school kids like the healthier fare, while 70% of middle-schoolers and 63% of high-schoolers also liked the new lunches.

And while it didn’t take a gourmet British chef coming to every school to get the kids to eat healthier, eliminating mystery meat and cardboard pizza days is still an ongoing process.

Did you get a Fitbit for Christmas? Have you been playing with the Healthkit on your iPhone 6? Millions of people are, taking a more technological approach towards their health. Now more than ever, monitoring sleep patterns, heart rhythms, and exercise schedules is available to the common person, not just celebrities with personal trainers.

It’s a good sign that so many people are interested in knowing what is happening to their body, but the effectiveness of the thousands of “mHealth” apps and devices has yet to be determined. The FDA is trying to keep up, but the line between medical device and personal telephone is still very difficult to discern.

If it seems like more heads are visible over the cubicle walls, it’s because standing and walking desks have become more popular in offices all over the country. RWJF attributes the trend to a viral Washington Post infographic that swept through the country last January, but companies that employ ergonomics professionals have been instituting standing desks and treadmill desks for a few years.

Lavizzo-Mourey practices what she preaches, and published a popular LinkedIn article in April showing her and a colleague taking a walking meeting on 2 treadmills. And a Google search of “standing desk” returns nearly 19 million results. Hopefully fewer and fewer people will truly say “Work is killing me.”

While New York City is no Amsterdam, cities large and small are embracing the bicycle as a legitimate transportation option again. According to RWJF, the number of cities with cycle share systems has grown from 6 to 36 in just 4 years.

In addition to cycle-share systems, cities are also taking a more serious approach to bike lanes and riding paths. Oklahoma City, in its quest to ditch being one of the most obese cities in the nation, redesigned the city as much friendlier to bicyclists and walkers, with the result of the city losing more than 1 million pounds collectively.

More generally than the standing/walking desk boom, a greater number of employers are embracing the idea of workplace wellness programs. According to RWJF, nearly 50% of employers around the nation either have already or will be implementing wellness programs in the next 3-5 years.

These programs pay off, too. A 7-year study of PepsiCo’s wellness program by the RAND Corporation showed that every dollar invested in employee chronic illness management saved the company roughly $3.78. Other lifestyle management programs broke even, but enhanced the savings among the most “high risk” employees.

In one of the most talked-about business stories of the year, CVS stopped selling tobacco in September, one month before its target date. And while goodwill won’t make up for the projected $2 billion in revenue loss for the company, the policy does make sense for a business now billing itself as a healthcare company.

There have been some truly surprising things to come out of Berkeley, CA (sometimes called Berzerkeley by the locals), but the city voting to tax sugary beverages was not one of them. New York City and San Francisco were also considering similar moves to curb consumption of soda and juice drinks, but the home of Cal was the first major city to actually enact the tax.

Nearly three-quarters of the city’s voters agreed to a 1-cent-per-ounce tax. The money collected will go towards school and community programs to prevent chronic disease. It remains to be seen if other cities have the grassroots organizations to fight against the beverage industry like Berkeley, but the results of the experiment in the Bay Area will be watched closely.

Smoking and tobacco use are banned on a record number of campuses, health centers are being included in college rankings, and the Freshman 15 is not really “a thing” any longer. While late night pizza and binge drinking aren’t being curtailed, there is a renewed dedication to health among college kids and administrators.

Sexual health also took to the forefront in 2014, with many schools revising and updating their sexual assault and rape responses based on new information. California also led the way, by adopting an “affirmative consent” law, redefining consent as a verbal or non-verbal “enthusiastic” yes.

Through Medicaid expansion, the launch of insurance exchanges and the ongoing reinforcement that the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land, 30% fewer people were uninsured in September 2014 than in September 2013.

With more than 10 million people gaining coverage, access to quality health care increased and the insured pool is growing, creating less risk for everyone. There are still discrepancies in coverage between states that expanded Medicaid and those that did not, as well as gaps for people who fall in between the Medicaid eligibility and the subsidy eligibility, but in general enrollment gains were greater than expected for the beginning of the core tenant of Obamacare.