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How Polk County is Tackling Obesity and Residents are Making Healthier Lifestyle Choices

Fifty-one year-old Ann Good topped 200 pounds last May. She lacked energy and was short of breath. Concerned about a family history of heart disease and diabetes, she decided to act. Today Good is 50 pounds lighter and breathing easier, in more ways than one. “I was just so tired of being tired,” says Good, a surgical coordinator for Winter Haven Hospital who lives in Frostproof. “I had to do this for myself.”

Good didn’t have success with diets, so she enlisted help from Dr. Dale Wickstrom-Hill, a Polk County Medical Association member who runs Winter Haven’s Perfect Form Center for Wellness and Anti-Aging. There she learned to curb bad eating habits. Now, instead of eating a handful of Oreos or Chips Ahoy, she will have one. Instead of eating half or three quarters of a bag of chips, she’ll have four or five. “I pay attention to the labels— the carbs [carbohydrates] and calories,” she reports.

With support from her doctor, education, supplements to boost her lagging thyroid, and willpower, she’s already met her goal of weighing 150 to 160 pounds. Her cholesterol has been restored to a healthy level, and she’d like to lose just five more pounds. “I’m in a size 10. I have never been in a size 10. I was wearing like 18, 20 size clothes. That just helped with my self esteem,” she says. “I love shopping now.”

Good is not alone in her struggle. Some 71.5 percent of Polk County residents are overweight or obese, Florida Department of Health statistics for 2010 show. Among those who did not complete high school, the rate is 85 percent. For non-Hispanic blacks, it’s 86.9 percent. Statewide, 65 percent are classified as overweight or obese.

Some 37.6 percent in Polk were obese in 2010, more than 10 percent above the state average, data shows. Obesity has been linked to heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and some cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The good news is Polk residents are working to combat obesity, some through Building a Healthier Polk, a group organized through the community-led partnership, Polk Vision. The group, which has been gathering data, is expecting to discuss progress and begin developing its priorities for 2014 at a public meeting. It is set for 3:30 p.m., January 14 at the Board of County Commission Chambers in Bartow. Its overall goals include reducing Polk’s obesity rate by more than 10 percent by 2015, boosting young people’s health, increasing access to and participation in community-based physical activity, accessing clinical practices on body mass index (BMI), supporting college and employee health/wellness programs, and raising community awareness about obesity.

The initiative is promoting healthy lifestyle changes. “Pick one thing you think you can do right now and do it,” advises Linda Hawbaker, Polk’s health education program manager for the Florida Department of Health, who is participating in the initiative. “When that becomes a habit, then pick another.” She says the initiative is about healthy habits, rather than just losing weight. “If you go on a diet, that indicates you’re going to go off it,” Hawbaker explains.

A grassroots effort among like-minded individuals already is making strides, some within the initiative and some without. Among those individuals is anesthesiologist Dr. Wickstom-Hill, who decided to help patients lose weight after seeing the difficulties some encountered when having surgery. Dr. Wickstrom-Hill helps patients pinpoint and remove obstacles to a more ideal weight: Hypothyroidism, medications like beta blockers that can put on 30 pounds, lack of support and accountability, and sensitivities to common foods like eggs, wheat, dairy, soy, peanuts, and sugar. “It’s not just a matter of those people sitting around eating all day,” she points out.

Dr. Wickstrom-Hill encourages morning workouts to lose weight, boost energy, and improve mood. She has patients visit her office weekly and keep a journal to track calories. At the office, a special scale tells them if they’re burning muscle or fat. “For the most part, if you’re seen weekly, you don’t cheat,” she explains. She believes in being practical. “Most of the people that come here don’t have people at home cooking the meals,” says Dr. Wickstrom-Hill, who tells them how to make wise choices at fast-food restaurants.

Her patient Jerrilynn Bush, an assistant principal at Winter Haven High School, learned it takes just 1470 calories a day to maintain her weight. Knowing what she can eat, logging what she eats, and staying accountable, helped her lose 50 pounds, says Bush, who uses an app to help her with her weight. Before shedding the pounds, she would describe herself as “an emotional eater.”

“Now, I feel great. I have more energy. I feel empowered,” she asserts. “I’ve had to change my way of thinking,” adds Bush, 49, who lives in Auburndale. “If you’re not willing to change you’re not going to lose weight.”

For those who want to lose weight, “the ‘fix’ is usually the choice,” asserts Kristie Renardson, a registered nurse, certified health coach and personal trainer who owns Winter Haven’s Health Concepts. She’s launching some programs in January for motivated individuals. “Individual health should be addressed individually,” she says. Her new Size Down Wellness program will focus on lifestyle changes and personal empowerment. “Behavioral change is a complicated process for most. We hope to remove the cultural guilt . . . and the negative self-talk,” she says. Renardson stresses the non-diet approach, where all food is acceptable with self-regulation. She emphasizes “joyful” movement rather than traditional body-centered exercise.

At Lakeland Regional Medical Center, Diabetes Coordinator Gwen Rogerson holds classes funded through a CDC grant. The goals? To prevent diabetes, lose seven percent of their weight, and exercise 150 minutes per week. Heather Hallman of Lakeland, who is in the first of three classes planned, has lost 26 pounds and reversed her pre-diabetes. An information technology analyst for Publix, the 34-year-old says she is now more conscious about calories. “We’re supposed to walk 10,000 steps a day,” she says.

In downtown Winter Haven, there’s help keeping fit through a Family Fun and Fitness at the Fountain program launched by Nat West, the retired vice president of Winter Haven Hospital, an active member of Building a Healthier Polk. Since September 2012, they do sit-ups and push-ups to music. “We wake up Winter Haven downtown pretty much,” West says. “My goal ideally would be to have it go countywide.” Frostproof now has started its own session, he adds.

Another group of ladies started Chat and Chew in January 2012 to share resources about healthy eating. “We’re the commercial for eating healthy,” says Cathy Thornhill, one of the organizers, a retired deputy superintendent for Polk County schools. Group members bring their own lunch, watch a program and then talk about it. They’re scheduled to watch Forks Over Knives from 11:30 to 1:30 p.m. Friday, January 17, at Winter Haven Library.

This spring, a $1.9 million pedestrian bridge is expected to make the 3.6-mile Chain of Lakes Trail more accessible. With $1.5 million from the state Department of Transportation and the balance from the city of Winter Haven, the bridge is being constructed where Avenue T and Chain of Lakes Trail intersects, says Andy Palmer, Winter Haven’s project development coordinator. “The trail dead-ended on the north and south,” elaborates Palmer, who is networking with other planners through Building a Healthier Polk. “Even though the trail was in place, that roadway was a major hurdle.”

As the initiative gears up, members of Building a Healthier Polk’s Worksite Wellness Strategy are expecting to share a “toolkit” of resources to help businesses encourage wellness. Kelly Andrews, assistant dean of wellness at Lakeland’s Florida Southern College, who chairs the subgroup, says they’re partnering in the endeavor with another organization, Polk Wellness Professionals, composed of mostly the same members. “Once Polk Wellness gets its toolkit together . . . we’ll see a lot more wheels turning,” she says.

Meanwhile, middle school physical education teacher Mary Fisher is doing her own thing to fight obesity. A Polk County public school teacher for 28 years, she teaches lifetime fitness at Jewett Academy Middle School. “Lifetime fitness is a personal responsibility they [the students] all need to take seriously,” she states. “We can build a healthier, happier community if everybody is in better shape.” An inventive teacher, she has students do more than run a mile and do sit-ups. They play cricket and do multicultural sports, video dancing, and exercise routines. She even makes up her own games. “They’re begging to come to P.E.,” she says. “Maybe it’s because I like them. I love them. I have fun with them, and they know it.” Fisher hopes what she’s doing will have a ripple effect, but she’s not planning to join Building a Healthier Polk because of a previous obligation. “It’s on Saturday,” she explains, “and that’s when I cycle.”



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