Mayors across the country are making the health of their citizens a top priority, according to the National League of Cities' "State of the Cities 2016 Report."
“The cost to business, the healthcare industry, and our communities makes fitness not only a personal and humanitarian issue, but also an economic imperative,” Harlingen, Texas, Mayor Chris Boswell said in his 2016 State of the City address. To that end, his city now has an advisory board that includes a variety of stakeholders from the medical community, to schools to businesses to help improve the health of its citizens. Other mayors are committed to similar efforts, some of which involve healthy city campaigns.
Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that more than 1,000 cities across the world have created healthy city campaigns. WHO's website shares that the first healthy cities programs started in 1986, and each campaign is unique to the city involved. However, WHO defines a healthy city campaign as a way of designing, planning or improving a community to make it easier for people to live healthfully. They can be pointed—think Boston’s FatSmack campaign to reduce obesity—or more general, such as in Gainesville, Florida, which won a Well City award in 2003 from Wellness Councils of America (WELCOA), a group that aims to help businesses create healthy workplace communities.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers Culture of Health awards each year to healthy communities. The winning programs don't just focus on exercise, although offering safe and affordable (or free) places to exercise are often a part of each program. As one of the 2016 winners, a community near St. Louis, Missouri showed that they also focus on making healthy food more accessible to the community, teaching about eating healthy foods, making city streets more walkable with improved infrastructure and lighting, creating better biking options, revitalizing blighted areas of cities, better school systems that could lead to better employment opportunities and entrepreneurship for residents, and higher homeownership to increase stability of neighborhoods and to increase neighborhood pride.
Citizens seem to understand the importance of creating healthier communities. Ninety-four percent of Americans say they are willing to take action to make their communities healthier, according to a recent survey by the Aetna Foundation.
Opportunities for Health Clubs
One important element of healthy city campaigns, according to WHO, is the involvement of "community members, various stakeholder, and commitments of municipal officials to achieve widespread mobilization and efficiency."
Health club owners already contribute to improving the health of their communities by providing venues with exercise and wellness options, but healthy city campaigns are an avenue to expand that reach beyond the walls of a facility. The benefits of doing so include being seen as a leading force for health in the community, showing the expertise of your staff related to fitness and wellness, getting your name out to individuals who are thinking of a fitness commitment and attracting in new members.
Gym owners have the opportunity to bring unique expertise to either a new or existing campaign, said Michelle Zamperetti, manager, community health programs, for GE Healthymagination. Healthymagination is a program by General Electric with a goal to improve access to health care and access to healthy places in the cities where GE's employees live and work.
A great first step for club owners interested in engaging with a citywide wellness initiative is to contact their city’s public health department or community hospital, Zamperetti said.
“There’s no national ‘this is how you do it,’" she said, “but cities large and small are developing these initiatives. YMCAs, hospitals, United Way—these organizations are the drivers because they have the meeting space for community events. They are trying to be the center of the way people are getting healthy.”
The multisector approach works most effectively, she said, so health club owners who are considering joining or starting one of these programs should ensure they also involve sectors that include health insurance, urban planning, business, faith communities and nonprofit industries.
Debbie Lee of Gainesville Health and Fitness, Gainesville, Florida, helped start the initiative that earned her town its 2003 award.
“We were go big or go home,” she said. “I wanted to do this, but we needed a way to measure what we wanted to accomplish: to be the healthiest city in America.”
Neighboring Jacksonville, Florida, had won a silver Well City award from WELCOA a few years earlier, so Lee took cues from WELCOA’s seven steps—the first of which is creating a diverse steering committee—as a jumping-off point. Lee said no gym can or should try to do this by itself.
“The partnership aspect is huge,” she said, adding that her health club offered its space for seminars, workshops and wellness activities. She said that most monetary costs for health clubs participating in healthy city campaigns are low—Gainesville Health and Fitness only paid a small application fee to WELCOA—but she cautions not to overlook the workload.
“The biggest thing was my time,” Lee said. “You are going to have to devote a portion of [someone’s] job to this initiative—because if it works, it’s a big initiative. No one was telling us we had to do this or that.”
Joe Cirulli, the founder and CEO of Gainesville Health and Fitness, gave his permission because “he saw the far-reaching benefits of positioning ourselves as the corporate-health resource,” Lee said. Even with her team’s level of dedication to the award, it took three years to earn it.
Members of her steering committee used their various platforms to run advertising for the initiative—which Lee said had its own logo not just the gym’s logo—at no charge.
Mary Barley headed up a healthy city campaign in 2007 in Tallahassee, Florida, when she was director of corporate wellness at Gold’s Gym.
“I was trying to get corporate memberships with the gym, so I thought it was a great way to tune in with companies trying to get their employees healthier,” said Barley, who used a Gold’s program called Working Well Today. Barley also called Debbie Lee, subsequently traveling to Gainesville to learn what worked for them, how much work was involved and how others in the community can open the doors.
Before beginning an initiative, health club owners should research whether there is already an initiative in their community, then put their business in front of companies looking for vendors perhaps for the campaign’s roundtable meetings and workout challenges, Barley said. She left Gold’s Gym five years ago to be executive director of health and wellbeing for Leon County, Florida, where she remains. Leon County has its own well-city campaign called the Corporate Cup Challenge, for which it has different sponsorship levels and a $35 vendor fee.
“If there’s not one of these in your city, you can certainly just go out and start one,” Barley says.
Although branding opportunities often come with these programs, Lee took a purposefully subtle tack in positioning Gainesville Health and Fitness within the city’s larger initiative.
“We never used [our Well City involvement] as direct or overt prospecting,” she said. “You have to be OK with it not being a membership drive. The second it’s perceived as a sales event, it does not qualify as a community initiative.”
GE’s Zamperetti agreed.
“It will probably bring more people in the door and more sponsorship opportunities, yes, but it also helps complete the puzzle of what gyms are trying to do for the entire community,” she said.
Healthy city campaigns can be about more than just exercise. A program in Goodyear, Arizona, included a new park—which studies show can have a positive effect on health inequality—anchored by two hospitals and developed in collaboration with public and private entities, including entities involved in farming and cancer research. Goodyear Community Park won the GE HealthyCities Leadership Challenge in 2016.
A neighboring gym’s owner, Peter Egyed of Crossfit Fury in Goodyear, was nominated by Goodyear city manager Brian Dahlke to be on the board of directors for the park. Egyed, who has owned his Crossfit for nearly a decade, said he plans to move his facility, which serves about 600 people a month, to the border of the park because its concept aligns with his gym’s goals.
“Fitness centers are quite often the first step in healthy living for countless individuals, and we have an amazing opportunity to impact generations of health,” Egyed said, adding that partnerships with Goodyear community leaders has helped create a culture of exercise, local agriculture and outdoor activities in the town he loves.
Citywide health and wellness programs allow health club operators to think of their facilities as more than a place for working out, Zamperetti said.
“It changes the gym’s place in the community,” she said, citing Egyed’s leadership in starting a seven-acre garden in Goodyear. He enlists hundreds of members from the community, from toddlers to seniors to help plant and maintain the crops, he said. Egyed’s gym also leads field trips to local farms, dairies and ranchers so families can learn where their food comes from.
“What’s valuable is that you are a business in the community with employees who believe in health and fitness,” Zamperetti said of these integrated efforts. “People need to know how to take advantage of these entities in the community, and fitness professionals can have these conversations at the highest level.”
Many cities’ health and wellness campaigns were started with the help of national organizations that focus on fostering good habits in the workplace. Here are a few of them.
A "Healthy People 2020" report by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion shares how important it is to address many aspects of health, including the physical activity level, the health-related quality of life and well-being, and nutritional needs.
The National League of Cities offers a Healthy Communities Toolkit: