New Institute Promotes Healthy Living

By Laura L. Acosta

A healthy lifestyle is more than cutting calories and occasional exercise. It involves a commitment to eating nutritious meals and snacks, engaging in regular physical activity and living tobacco free. The rewards not only include a slimmer waistline, but also a healthier heart, a lower risk of chronic diseases and a reduction in health care costs.

A new initiative involving The University of Texas at El Paso will engage community leaders, organizations and agencies to promote healthy lifestyles through public policy, nutrition and physical activity that will enhance the quality of life for generations of residents in the Paso del Norte region.

In August, the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation (PdNHF) launched the Paso del Norte Institute for Healthy Living, a four-institutional partnership between the PdNHF, UTEP, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Public Health and The Texas Tech University Health Science Center-Paul L. Foster School of Medicine.

Alexandra Alba, left, health promotion junior,  Jasmine Guerra, senior psychology major, and  Naomi Rodriguez, health promotion senior, stroll  down UTEP’s walking trail.
Alexandra Alba, left, health promotion junior,
Jasmine Guerra, senior psychology major, and
Naomi Rodriguez, health promotion senior, stroll
down UTEP’s walking trail.

Funded with an initial $2.2 million for 5 years, the institute will leverage the resources of the three universities to promote healthy lifestyles and reduce obesity among people living along the U.S.-Mexico border region, especially children and youth.

“The PdNHF currently has funded a great deal of ongoing activity with schools, governmental agencies and community organizations, and our three universities will help to advance our  capacity in this region to plan and implement evidence-based programs and to effectively evaluate how they’re making a difference,” said College of Health Sciences Dean Kathleen Curtis, Ph.D., the institute’s principal investigator.

Examples of that activity include the Community Gardens projects, which teach children about nutrition, physical activity and volunteerism, and the city’s Eat Well! El Paso program that promotes healthy food options for children and their families.

According to a study by the American Heart Association (AHA), participants in community-based programs who focused on improving nutrition and increasing physical activity had a 58 percent reduction in incidence of type 2 diabetes compared with drug therapy, which had a 31 percent reduction.

The same study found that most cardiovascular disease can be prevented or at least delayed until old age through a combination of direct medical care and community-based prevention programs and policies.

Faculty, staff and students from all three campuses will combine efforts to promote healthy lifestyles; advance proper nutrition and physical activity across the region; and promote regional leadership and provide technical assistance to implement evidence-based approaches to foster healthy eating and active living in neighborhoods, schools, public facilities and business.

“The problems around healthy eating and active living accessibility and affordability have become so profound that we need a central, strong institute to take us to the next level and help us coordinate our efforts,” said Michael P. Kelly, Ph.D., senior program officer for the Paso del Norte Health Foundation. Efforts include grant and policy development, program evaluation and media campaign design. “The institute really brings together expertise in these areas so that we’re not making just small incremental changes. Hopefully we can really accelerate change for the better,” Kelly said.

The institute’s first order of business is to recruit an executive director who has experience leading health initiatives on a national level and who will develop the framework for the institute. As part of the recruiting process, UTEP hosted open forums where candidates shared their expertise with the community. Officials expect to hire an executive director, as well as a coordinator and administrative analyst for the institute, by 2014.

Kurt Gross, president of Strategy Ranch, a consulting firm for health care organizations, will collaborate with the executive director to reinforce the institute’s message about healthy lifestyles out in the community.

“The Institute for Healthy Living has the potential to change the health of the region for generations,” Gross said. “The institute isn’t limiting its focus to obesity, it is considering all the aspects that contribute to a healthy lifestyle – from accessibility of health information to public policy and nutrition and fitness. This, along with the other developments in health care in El Paso, like the Medical Center of the Americas, could catapult El Paso as a health leader in the state and region.”

UTEP, the School of Public Health and Texas Tech University Health Science Center have started to collect baseline data from the community to identify available resources and designate priority areas. Information includes green space, walking trails, land development, zoning and food outlets.

The American Heart Association found that $1 spent on building biking trails and walking paths could save approximately $3 in medical expenses.

Researchers will also focus on school environments and school policies on nutrition and physical activity.

They plan to promote evidence-based practices that can be implemented throughout the community to increase physical activity and promote healthy eating.

“It takes a multitude of strategies to address food deserts and nutrition and physical activity from multiple perspectives,” said Hector Balcazar, Ph.D, regional dean of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Public Health. “There’s not only one single way of changing food and nutrition habits. You have to change so many things, not only in individuals but in the clinics, and the schools, and the environment, and existing policies.”

Gurjeet S. Shokar, M.D., chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, has seen an increase in obesity in the community over the years, despite national efforts to reduce the epidemic. As a member of the institute’s executive committee, Shokar hopes that the institute will help reverse the trend at the local level, starting with children and young people.

“We need to engage the community in healthy nutrition and physical activity, especially children and teens because this is the time when we can influence their behavior, before they become adults,” Shokar said. “Hopefully by increasing awareness of healthy nutrition and physical activity (through the Institute of Healthy Living), we can increase the overall health of the population.”