In 2009 Chris Hornberger and I undertook a project with novaknowledge to develop a report card on the health, safety and return to work record in Nova Scotia. This report dealt with a full range of health and safety issues and outcomes including obesity, cancer, absenteeism, mental health, workplace injury time loss claims and time to return to work following an injury.
One of the key findings from the report was that 63% of Nova Scotia’s working age population carry excess weight (the second highest rate in the country) and that excess weight has been shown to lead to increased levels of diabetes, cancer and workplace injury. With increased costs of health care delivery, recent media coverage has focused on obesity and the impact it has on our healthcare budgets. What has been missing from this conversation is the impact obesity has on the prosperity of our province.
Obesity is a symptom with many causes. When compared to the national averages our population is less physically active, fewer of us eat fruits and vegetables five times a day, more of us have unhealthy alcohol consumption patterns, and more of us smoke. Reversing the obesity trend will mean addressing all of these factors and we all have a role to play.
- Employers need to create work environments where healthy behaviours are recognized and supported – this can be as simple as encouraging employees to go for a walk on their lunch break or as complex as providing health assessments and tools for improving health outcomes for their entire workforce.
- Unions need to reinforce healthy behaviours and support the inclusion of health related clauses in negotiated contracts.
- Educators need to integrate wellness programs into schools – not just removing junk food from cafeterias, but teaching students about living a healthy lifestyle now and for their entire lives, including the reintroduction of physical activity on a daily basis.
- Community organizations need to inspire community leaders to effect change through support of healthy living initiatives and activities – the maintenance of parks and venues for outdoor activities; serving healthy food at community meetings and events; and recognizing employers who are making positive changes in their workplaces.
- Governments need to provide the policy framework and infrastructure to promote health living. These may include taxing overly fat, salty or sweet foods, making our communities more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, and supporting healthy living initiatives.
- Individuals need to take responsibility for their own health and take steps to improve their health and that of their families – join a gym (and go); walk with a friend; and eat more fruits and vegetables.
This won’t be easy – change is a very difficult thing. It takes leadership, legislation, communication and education; but we have had some success in the recent past that show we can adapt to new ways of living and working.
Over the past 30 years smoking has become something you do alone, outside, where your smoke won’t harm anyone else – a far cry from when I went to university and smoking in class was the norm. Recycling is something we do as a matter of course – but 15 years ago we wouldn’t have dreamt of sorting our garbage for the good of the environment. And most recently, we all learned to cough into our sleeves rather than our hands in order to reduce the spread of germs and infectious diseases. So we can change.
Through researching the material for this report I recognized that I had some unhealthy practices that needed to change – I joined a gym and go at least twice a week; I’ve started to practice yoga; I walk my dog at least once a day; and I try to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables every day. These weren’t big changes, but they did take making a conscious decision to improve my health and that of my family, and I am seeing improvements.
If it takes a community to raise a child then it definitely takes a community to improve our collective health outcomes. We all have a role to play, we just need to make the decision that we need to change – for ourselves, our families and our community – and then just do it.