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Choose Healthier | December 15, 2015

Building a Mayor’s Fitness Council in Harlingen, TX!

Texas is now the 11th most obese state in the nation. That’s one high ranking we aren’t too proud of.

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Our state faces a great challenge in terms of size, but it also boasts unmatched state pride, brilliant innovators, and one of the strongest economies in the nation. We at IT’S TIME TEXAS believe the Lone Star State can do better, and that localized community efforts are key.

Communities in the Rio Grande Valley comprised mainly of Hispanic residents are up against even higher rates of obesity and related chronic diseases than the rest of the state. Dr. Belinda Reininger, Professor of Health Promotion and Behavioral Services at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Brownsville Regional Campus says, “Obesity underlies most of the major diseases faced by the population including heart disease, some cancers, liver disease and others: A major concern for our region. 80% of our population are obese or over-weight. This statistic sadly reflects our children also; among children 53% are obese and 27% over-weight.” Reininger and other health champions have done phenomenal work in Brownsville in recent years, earning the esteemed Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize in 2014.

Meanwhile, the IT’S TIME TEXAS team has been in dialogue with health experts from all industries throughout 2015 to better understand the biggest roadblocks related to health in each area of the state and brainstorm sustainable solutions. We have determined that Mayor’s Fitness Councils are an extremely powerful way to build a local culture of health that encourages, promotes, and provides equitable access to physical activity and good nutrition for all residents. Only a handful of Texas cities currently have these councils. One of the strongest, San Antonio’s FitCity SA, has accomplished amazing things since its inception, and garnered strong corporate sponsors.

We did our research on the existing Mayor’s Fitness Councils in Texas and led interactive sessions at the Growing Healthy Texas events this summer. These events took place in Brownsville, San Angelo, San Marcos, Amarillo, Corpus Christi, and Fort Worth, and we saw an inspiring amount of determination to form Mayor’s Fitness Councils at every stop. In Brownsville, we connected with Judy Quisenberry, Grants Director for the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation in Harlingen, who was presenting on fundraising and grant writing. “I heard Dr. Baker Harrell speak about Mayor’s Fitness Councils and we broke up into city groups to talk about what steps we could take to create a healthier city,” Judy shared. “The group from Harlingen agreed with Dr. Harrell that it was time to do something, and we were excited to try to create a Mayor’s Fitness Council. After that meeting, I checked with our Mayor Chris Boswell, and he was interested also! We met later that month to come up with a plan, presented it to Mayor Boswell in August, and the Mayor and City Commission created the Mayor’s Wellness Council officially in September!” Harlingen held a council kick-off meeting in November and saw a great turnout:

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Attendees noted Harlingen’s existing assets when it comes to health, and are brainstorming how to better promote them. “Harlingen has over 550 acres of park property that includes over 20 parks and over 14 miles of trails, which we hope to market in a new way to attract more people to use them,” Judy noted. “We also have a temperate climate most of the year, which allows us to exercise and enjoy the outdoors almost every day!”

We asked Judy what motivated her to spearhead the Harlingen Mayor’s Wellness Council. “I am motivated by so many things; by friends and family… as I get older I want to make sure that I am healthy and able to do the things I love! My work motivates me as I learn more about chronic disease and the risk factors that can be controlled by making good choices leading to a longer and healthier life. The team committed to the Mayor’s Fitness Council here motivates me – they believe that if we work together, we really can make sustainable changes to the health of Harlingenites!”

Judy and her fellow council members will be utilizing our Mayor’s Fitness Council Toolkit when it launches in the new year to continue developing a sustainable structure and working toward measurable goals. The toolkit, created together with a diverse group of government, business, and community leaders from cities and towns of all sizes, is intended to help motivated individuals join with local government to identify both the most severe obstacles and the most promising strengths in their communities, and form an action plan everyone can get behind.

Sign up here to be notified as soon as the Mayor’s Fitness Council Toolkit is available! With questions or ideas regarding Mayor’s Fitness Councils, don’t hesitate to contact our Director of Community Programs Kristen Nussa: kristen@itstimetexas.org.

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