On Wednesday, thousands of Iowans - organizers had hoped for a half million of us - got out and walked a kilometer on a sunny October day. About 20 of us at Business Publications Corp. Inc. participated in the event, and it was an enjoyable thing to walk and talk together over our lunch break.
Did it contribute to the overall health of Iowans? Probably not. We improve and maintain our health by building healthy habits, day in and day out. One walk a year is symbolic at best, right?
Will it help us to achieve Gov. Terry Branstad’s goal for Iowa to become the healthiest state in the nation by 2016? In the most recent ranking -- released in February -- Iowa came in 10th in the nation with an index score of 68.2. The top state, North Dakota, had a score of 70.4 in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
Once a year, Gallup surveys people on five different metrics of emotional, financial and physical well-being. It’s important to understand that the survey asks about 2 million people annually about their perceptions of their well-being. For example, according to Gallup, 27 percent of Greater Des Moines residents said in 2013 that they are obese, but medical statistics say that, in fact, 34 percent of us actually met the medical definition of obesity.
So, even if Iowa shoots to the top of all 50 states in the next Gallup poll, it really is only a measure of how good we feel about our health. It doesn’t mean that, en masse, Iowans suddenly lost weight, adopted a daily exercise regimen and started eating their vegetables.
But does that mean that our perceptions and attitudes about healthy living aren’t important? I argue no.
Look, I’m a journalist. I’m trained to look at the facts. But I’m old enough to have witnessed sea changes in attitudes, which served to reverse what seemed to be unstoppable trends. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about this called “The Tipping Point.” Problems are overwhelming. Society has always looked at things a certain way, until suddenly, it changes. In fact, Gladwell, argues that small changes occur, and it’s like a child walking toward the middle of a teeter-totter. When they get to a certain point, what was up is suddenly down.
We had anti-smoking campaigns when I was in high school and college, but they had little effect. Smoking caused cancer, we knew by then, but the distant possibility of disease didn’t seem as relevant as our perception that smoking was cool because our favorite rock stars and actors did it.
I’ve pretty much always been a nonsmoker and remember that even though cigarette smoke polluted the air in my workplace, when I went out to eat, went to a bar or took a cab, it was considered impolite, or perhaps even dangerous, to complain or ask someone to put out their smoke. It just wasn’t done. Then suddenly -- it seemed to me -- insurance companies, fueled by government studies on secondhand smoke in the late 1980s, starting telling businesses that cigarette smoke was a health hazard to all employees and there might be some liability if they continued to allow smoking in their workplaces. Many corporations began to restrict, and then completely ban, smoking in the workplace.
That was the tipping point. Almost overnight, smoking became uncool. Suddenly, nothing about a huddle of workers shivering together on the sidewalk to grab a quick smoke looked hip or enviable. Governments got into the act and began enacting smoking bans in public places.
Many things led up to that tipping point and many came after it, but that was the point that I saw society’s attitude change about smoking.
The same can happen with wellness. Employee wellness committees, health insurers’ efforts to promote and reward healthy habits, health education in schools - no one of these things solves the problem, but together they advance us toward the tipping point.
I don’t know when or how that will come, but I have an idea what it looks like. In our little company, it’s the tangible, expressed viewpoint that we care about our co-workers and want to support them in living healthfully. It’s a mindset that together we are working toward creating a healthy AND productive work environment for everyone, where we can encourage and support our colleagues in whatever they are defining as their health goals.
Our little 1-kilometer walk Wednesday didn’t miraculously change my fitness level or anyone else’s. But it did give me a chance to walk in the sunshine and talk to folks I enjoy. It got me out of my chair and loosened up those aging muscles (which don’t seem to be nearly as accommodating of a desk job as they used to be). The number of my colleagues who participated - about half our staff - told me that my co-workers were supporting me as the organizer as well as the idea of being part of a healthy workplace. That feels good. And it’s motive enough for me to keep tiptoeing up the teeter-totter.
Hope I’m around to see it tip.
Managing Editor, Business Record